Nocino. The word alone evokes images of sipping something decadent while gazing across the mountains of the Emilia-Romagna. When Brad came across the description in his copy of Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist, his Sicilian eyes got a little fuzzy, and he began muttering under his breath about the black walnut tree we discovered last year in a nearby Wildlife Management Area.
See, nocino is a liqueur that makes use of the approximately 4,487 green walnuts that fall from each tree in early summer, nuts that would otherwise go to waste. The directions are simple:
- Wash and cut 20 green walnuts into quarters. Place in a sterile jar.
- Pour 1 cup of sugar into a saucepan and cover with water.
- Bring to a boil, stirring sugar until dissolved.
- Remove from heat and combine with 750 ml of vodka or Everclear. Mix in the zest of 1 lemon or orange.
- Pour over walnuts, adding 1 cinnamon stick, 1-2 whole cloves, or 1 vanilla bean, if desired.
- Store for 45 days in a cool, dark place, shaking occasionally. At the end of 45 days, strain, rebottle, and age another two months.
- Stewart notes that some folks add a cup of simple syrup before the final two months of aging.
Well, the directions may have been simple, but gathering the nuts? Not so much.
Walnut trees are alternate bearing, meaning they produce a heavy crop one year followed by a light yield the next. Because that tree of ours produced a ton of nuts last year, we knew not to expect much this time around. But we were shocked to find not a single nut on the ground, and only 18 were visible high up in the tree, out of reach.
We are, however, nothing if not determined.
Brad scanned the ground for anything tool-like and spotted a large branch that could be used as a javelin. With great coordination (and subsequent pain from a partially torn rotator cuff), he lobbed the stick at each walnut, knocking off all 18 without damaging the limbs.
Since this was our first batch, we decided to science up an experiment to figure out which flavor we like best, settling on two variables: the inclusion of cinnamon and the addition of simple syrup before the second aging.
The walnuts and the vodka concoction were evenly distributed among four jars, with sticky notes on the front to help us keep track of the contents:
Cinnamon sticks were initially placed in two of the jars and, during this week’s straining of the nuts*, simple syrup was added to two jars as well. We sampled a tiny bit while removing the shells and have a hunch that the cinnamon-and-sugar combo is going to win. The control sample, with neither, tasted a bit like, well, like motor oil.
The finished product will be ready in time for Thanksgiving, so we’re looking forward to a sampling with the family. And who knows, with another couple months of aging, a sip of nocino just might make all of our eyes a little fuzzy, dreaming of the mother country.
*A new Festivus tradition?