Love and Walnuts
matchmaking and the lure of a simple liqueur
STORY AND PHOTOS BY BETH MAXEY
I did not fall in love with Emmanuelle, but I did send a bottle of nocino to a man I had met in Seattle. The next year we were married. The following spring, digging a garden bed, I discovered a walnut tree in our new back yard.
Smooth and nutty, nocino has a deep rich flavor to match its dark chocolate color: slight espresso bitterness with notes of vanilla and maple. In Italy, nocino, like limoncello, is served ice cold in frozen glasses at the end of the meal as an ammazza caffe, or “kill coffee,” to refresh the palate and aid digestion.
Green walnuts are the young fruit of walnut trees—smooth, round bright green orbs that look like a giant olive. As the fruit matures, its green flesh thins, dries and darkens. The shell and seed beneath it harden into the more commonly recognized nut. Nocino, again like limoncello, is an extraction of aromatic oils from the fruit into high-proof liquor. Typically, in these extractions, the fruit is placed in spirits and set in the sun until the color transfers to the alcohol, indicating that the flavor oils have also transferred. As you would expect, limoncello is yellow; but green walnut liqueur is not green. In nocino, the yellowish milky sap from the young nut is the source of the flavor. This rich sap oxidizes when the nut is cut, tinting the alcohol throughout the extraction period into the rich chocolate color of a mature nocino.
Pellegrino Grappi, a notary in 18th century Modena (a city better known for that other brown liquid, Aceto Balsamico), is credited with the first written recipe for nocino. And although nocino is made throughout Italy, Modena is still the seat of the Ordine del Nocini Modenese, (The Order of Modenese Nocino Makers) dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of quality nocino.
The Ordine’s recipe calls for a liter of pure alcohol (95%, or 190 proof), 700-900 grams of sugar, a kilogram of local nuts, picked as “tradition dictates,” during the “balsamic (or curative) time” of the night of June 24th, after the Feast of San Giovanni Battista (St. John the Baptist). The nut count might vary, but it must total an odd number, usually between 33 and 35 nuts, along with optional cinnamon and cloves, warning the “poco è già molto” or “a little [of these flavorings] is already a lot.”
This recipe says to quarter the nuts and macerate them with sugar in the sun for 1-2 days before adding the alcohol and flavorings. After no less than 60 days, the mixture should be filtered, and ideally, refined in an oak or chestnut barrel. The Ordine also recommends a 12-month aging period—which I like for the ritual it brings to my life. On the other hand, tasting your nocino every few months lets you experience the flavor profile as it develops.
Tradition is one way of interacting with a recipe, experimentation another. At its essence, nocino is an alcohol extraction of green walnuts, and there are a lot of different ways to craft your own version.
All edible walnut varieties can be used for extraction before the walnut shell hardens. Persian (typically known as English) walnuts are the most common commercial variety and have wide rounded leaves and silvery-gray bark. Black walnuts are native to North America and can be identified by long and narrow leaves. Harvest time varies with climate, but in Seattle prime season usually falls between late June and early August, varying with the year and the microclimate of the tree.
Green walnuts are ready when a straight pin can easily be inserted through the skin and into the flesh with minimal resistance—the whole green fruits will feel hard to the touch, but release a surprising amount of liquid when pierced. At their peak, green walnuts are moist and milky when sliced open. If you wait until the nuts are too mature to easily pierce, the flavor of your nocino will be unpleasantly astringent. Blemishes and bruises on the skin of the nut are not a problem; simply trim them out. Use gloves when you handle the nuts; if you cut them, do so on a dark surface or out of doors. Even though the sap is not brown at first, it will oxidize and stain your hands—and any surface they touch in your kitchen—a very dark brown that’s nearly impossible to remove.
In Colorno, grandmothers use grain alcohol for their recipes, which is available at Italian grocery stores, and they can be seen walking slowly home with a large bottle in each hand in the late spring. Though pure or grain alcohol, such as Everclear 190, is most frequently called for in Italian recipes ,it needs to be mixed at least 3 to 1 with water before extraction to achieve a final consumable concentration of 70-90 proof alcohol. The other problem with Everclear is that the high proof leads to greater extraction of bitter and astringent compounds, which (as in wine) are not desirable unless you aim to age your nocino significantly. For my nocino I use a liter of medium grade vodka, one vanilla bean split lengthwise and as many green walnuts as will fit comfortably in my container, usually a half gallon glass milk bottle.
When you remove the green walnuts from the alcohol after 2-4 months, a heavy sediment remains. This is mostly the dissolved green skin of the young walnuts. Conical drip coffee filters, or the slightly more traditional knee-high stocking, work well to remove any residues; I pass my nocino through several times. Because I tend to like things lightly sweetened, I add simple syrup to the filtered extraction rather than adding sugar and water in with the nuts and alcohol at the beginning. This lets me fine tune the sweetness to match the character of the nocino and lighten the alcoholic kick a bit, which can be handy if you’d like to use your nocino as an ingredient in frozen desserts.
Though most recipes say to quarter the nuts, I have had success leaving them whole and pricking them with a straight pin several times. This method allows me to make a quick pickle with the whole nuts after the extraction is complete. After removing them from the alcohol, I place them in white wine or cider vinegar, sugar and an aromatic spice mix for a week or so, and serve them with cheese. In Alsace I had one such walnut pickle, with the texture of pâte and the flavor of a nutty gherkin, thinly sliced and placed on a round of Chèvre, so that both the delicate design and flavor of the walnut was illuminated by the creamy white cheese. If you prefer, skip the pickling and instead follow the Italian tradition of covering the walnuts in white wine for a second infusion, to obtain a vermouth-like drink.
Every year in the early summer, I pick green walnuts with friends—old and new. We each make nocino with our own flavors and our own recipes. The nocino I sent from Italy still sits in our liquor cabinet, in a stout apothecary’s bottle with a sepia label of art deco swirls, next to a growing house-made collection. Occasionally my husband and I share a small glass or offer one to friends as an excuse to tell our story. Mrs. Arcari, I think, would be proud.
Sidebar: Cooking with Nocino
Nocino is excellent on its own, with biscotti, warmed in coffee, and atop vanilla or walnut ice cream. Some like it accompanying a strong cheese, like pecorino. I find it delicious when used as substitute in recipes for vanilla extract, especially to flavor whipped cream.
Around Modena, nocino is used in the traditional savory dish Filetto di Manzo al Nocino or Beef Tenderloin with Nocino Sauce, where tenderloin steaks are seared in butter and then the pan in deglazed in nocino for a quick pan sauce. Used in this way, nocino adds an earthy richness reminiscent of Escoffier’s classical Sauce Poivrade to game meats. My very favorite dish just might be seared duck breast with nocino reduction.
Sidebar: Nut Hunt
Green walnuts are bright leaf green, making them hard to spot in the tree. I have discovered a number of walnuts in parks and gardens not by looking up, but by looking down, where the hard mature shells often accumulate from season to season. Squirrels also love to munch on green walnuts, so you can spot the nibbled green and white fruits along the ground, typically with little dark brown edges around the bite marks. They can also be found at farmers markets, ordered over the internet, and sought out through friends and community websites.
RAW GREEN WALNUTS
Clary Ridge Ranch, California though www.localharvest.org
Made in California: Nocino della Cristina, makes a walnut liqueur steeped in brandy. www.nocino.com
Imported from Italy: Aggazzotti Nocino Riserva, Green Walnut Liqueur. www.whwc.com
Beth Maxey is the chef and owner of Feast Suppers. When she is not cooking, Beth is finishing The Death of the Lion, a memoir about food, family and freedom during the last years of the Sri Lankan Civil War.