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the walnut of time

I started this blogpost way way back in August, when it seemed like Portland was in the middle of summer. It’s nice that this weekend I am finishing it, we are experiencing a sort of reminiscence of summer.

It is a bright Saturday morning in August and I am standing outside a small apartment building, waiting to pick-up some furniture from an ex-co-worker who is taking a job in another town. The street is flanked by two enormous walnut trees. The branches are laden with green fruits the size of medium-small limes. I crush one with my foot and notice that the shell and aril is crunchy, but it has not fully developed a seed and shell. The aroma from the crushed green walnut was spicy and slightly citrus. The clear yellowish ichor on the sidewalk quickly becomes a brown stain.

This reminds me that last year I had wanted to make nocino, but missed my chance. This year, I swore, I would do it.

Nocino is a traditional liqueur from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. It is made by steeping green (completely unripe) walnuts in hard alcohol, with sugar and a few spices. Recipes vary as to what sort of alcohol to use. Grappa would probably be traditional, and recent interpretations call for vodka or Everclear. Some recipes call for wine to be used in addition to the alcohol.

Traditionally, the walnuts are to be picked on the night of the feast day of St John the Baptist, June 24. Superstition dictates that the number of walnuts set to steep be an odd number. The walnuts are set to steep for 40 days in full sunlight, generally in the garden, after which the inky liquid is strained and sugar is added. The resulting liqueur is given a couple weeks to mellow before drinking.

Back in February, at the inaugural Oregon Bartenders Guild event, I had a chance to taste a cocktail that included a nocino made by Kevin Ludwig. It was a lovely concoction of gin, nocino, and St.Germain. At the time, Kevin described that he had made two or three difference batches of nocino the previous summer. From his brief overview of the process, I received the impression that each of these batches were a little experimental.

On the following Sunday afternoon Kim and I take a chair and a broomstick out to harvest some green walnuts. We pull down almost two paper bags full from the street trees. More would have been easy to gather if I’d been willing to climb. Back in my kitchen I use a cheap heavy chinese cleaver to quarter the green walnuts. The aril is dry or the shell is harder than I expected in some of the fruits we’ve picked; those I put aside. Others have a nutmeat that is still jelly-like, these are the ones I am trying to find. I drop them into a gallon jar with Everclear and vodka. As I reach the top of the jar I realize that I’ve forgotten the count.

At this point, the liquid is mostly transparent but has a green tint. By the next morning, though, it is completely black, but still has a greenish hue at the edges. The aril of the walnuts were still green at this point.

The previous Friday night I had opened a bottle of Ridge 2005 Dusi Vineyard Zinfandel to go with dinner. It was a little effervescent on the tongue. Some sort of unfortunate in-bottle fermentation had taken place, but the wine was still tasty. I pulled a second bottle of the same from the cellar, only to find it faulted in the same way. Highly annoying, to be sure, to find a fine bottle of wine destroyed. I love the big jammy Paso Robles zinfandels, and my annoyance is raised. And doubled for losing two bottles, which I’d corked and left sitting on the counter with the intent to register my displeasure with the wineshop. Instead, I decide that this wine will live again in the nocino. The bottle fermentation tasted as though it was simply the fault of the winemaker in not using sulfur and filtration to beat down any residual yeast at bottling time. In order to fix the state of the wine, I dose each bottle with an ounce of grain alcohol, which should boost the amount of alcohol in the bottle to enough to quell the wine yeasts that remain.

Over the intervening weeks, the jar of green walnuts and alcohol sits at the kitchen window, getting sun on what sunny days we have in the rest of August and September. The greenish hue tempers to brown, and the aril are black.

Tonight I drained the liquid from the walnut quarters and strained it to get out the cloves and crumbled cinnamon. I made a 3:2 sugar syrup and added that, and the two bottles of wine. The result is dark brown liquid, sweet, spicy, alcoholic. It promises to be tasty.

I’ll let this meld and mellow for ten days or so before a real tasting. And I have two examples of nocino to taste it against, the Monteverdi Spirits’ Nocino della Cristina and a bottle of Nocino brought back from Italy.

    Recipe? not really, but I’ll adhere to some guidelines next year:

  • scout more walnut trees
  • start on June 24
  • a gallon jar full of quartered walnuts should hold about 1.5L of alcohol
  • try to find a pisco to use

Some nocino recipes call for a piece of mace, or a vanilla bean, or two coffee beans. Next time I might try a few cubeb grains and some mace.

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