I first came across nocino several years ago during a trip to Italy. I like to stock up on various bottles of local specialties wherever I go, and during that particular trip I found myself at a supermarket where I came across a bottle called “nocino” with an illustration of a walnut on it. I absolutely love hazelnut and almond liqueurs, so I figured a walnut one would be right up my alley. I grabbed it, wrapped it up tight with multiple sweaters, and nestled it in my suitcase, desperately hoping that the nearly black liquid it would make the journey home intact without leaking (both to spare my clothing and also so I’d be able to taste this new-to-me concoction).
It made it safely all the way home to Portland, where I promptly opened the bottle, poured me and Jeremy a couple snifters’ full, and feel deeply in love with this warming, spiced, and mysteriously dark beverage. The next time I went to Italy I asked my friend Valentina about it, and she explained that it was made from unripe green walnuts that are picked in spring and then soaked in a non-flavored liquor (like vodka) with spices for a long time. I tried to find another bottle of nocino on that trip, since I’d long since finished the original one, but because it wasn’t a specialty of the specific region I was in, it proved difficult to track down (the hyper localism of Italian food culture didn’t work in my favor, at that particular moment). However, my last day there Valentina managed to track down a bottle and surprised me with it as a parting gift before I left to go back home.
Since then I’ve gone through that bottle and several more, some made locally here in the Pacific northwest, some from Bulgaria, and some from Croatia, but the Italian version is still my favorite. As a stubborn Greek with a bit of Italian in her, I’ve always wanted to try my hand at making it from scratch, thinking that perhaps I could make it close to (or maybe even as good as) the delicious Mediterranean original. And then it so happened that on my morning run along the trail near my house, I saw little green orbs developing on the low and broad walnut tree whose two branches generously drape over the fence. Most walnut trees bear fruit only ever other year, and I knew this was my chance.
After scouring David Lebowitz’s nocino recipe from Room for Dessert, along with every other nocino recipe I could find in every corner of the internet, I put together a hybrid of all the spices that sounded particularly tasty along with my quartered green walnuts, lemon zest, and sugar. Now that it’s all mixed together, I’ll need to wait two months before straining it out and allowing it to age for a few more months again. But I know my patience will be rewarded at Christmas, when I get to crack it open and enjoy this spiced inky concoction. That’s how it’s traditionally done in Italy, the walnuts are harvested in the spring, allowed to steep in the liquor for a few months, then strained, then the nocino is sealed up and aged again for a few months, to be opened and shared at Christmastime gatherings.
I’ll update this post again once I do the filtering in September and again in December once it’s served, so stay tuned! 🙂
A Note on Green Walnut Harvesting & Cutting for Nocino
Keep your eye out for any neighborhood walnut trees (if you’ve ever found any walnuts buried in your garden, thank your neighborhood squirrels for cueing you in on the fact that there’s some nearby.) It’s time to harvest them when the green walnuts are about the size of a small lime. This falls between mid-May and early July, depending on how hot your spring is. If it’s a warm Mediterranean-like spring, you’ll be harvesting sometime between mid-May to mid-June. We had a *very* cool spring this year, so I didn’t harvest them until the first week of July. The size is really the best measure of whether or not they’re ready.
It’s better if they’re a little too small than a little too big, because once they’re big they begin to develop the hard internal shell of the walnut, and it makes cutting them into quarters super difficult and also really dulls down your knife. You also want to pick the walnuts that have little to no pock-marks on the outside and are a nice and vibrant green. You definitely don’t want pests or worms contributing any off-flavors to the nocino as it’s aging. And of course, you want to give them a good wash with cold water in a colander to make sure any pests, fungus, and bacteria are rinsed away.
And lastly, wear dark clothing and use a cutting board you don’t mind staining, because the slight juice released by the walnuts when you cut them will eventually turn whatever it touches black. This includes your hands, so either wash them regularly while you’re cutting the walnuts, or wear gloves. And if you’re using a favorite knife to cut them, clean it well immediately afterwards to prevent staining.
Nocino - An Italian Walnut Liqueur
- 1 64-ounce mason jar with a lid
- 28 green walnuts young + about the size of a small lime
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 6 whole cloves
- 3 whole small cinnamon sticks (about 3 inches long each)
- 1 whole star anise
- 1 whole vanilla bean
- 1 organic lemon
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 liter vodka
Using a vegetable peeler, peel the zest off of the lemon, trying to get as little of the white pitch on the zest strip as possible. Set the zest aside, and place the lemon in the refrigerator for another use.
Cut the vanilla bean in half length-wise, and then cut it into roughly 1-inch long pieces. Set it aside.
Begin cutting the walnuts into quarters (taking heed of the staining warnings outlined in the blog post above under "A Note on Green Walnut Harvesting & Cutting") and placing them in the 64-ounce mason jar.
Try to evenly distribute the spices, lemon zest, and vanilla bean pieces throughout the jar as you tightly layer the green walnuts. When the jar is about 1/4 full, add the granulated sugar. Continue adding the green walnuts, spices, lemon zest, and vanilla bean pieces until you have about 1-inch of headspace from the top of the jar, and all the spices, + lemon zest + vanilla bean bits are incorporated. (It's okay if you have one too many or too few green walnuts, the important thing is to leave a little space at the top for the vodka to cover everything.)
Pour the vodka into the jar, leaving a small 1/4-inch of headspace at the top. Seal tightly and store in a cool and dark part of your kitchen. It should be visible, so that you remember to shake it once a day over the next two months (ideally—it's not the end of the world if you miss a few days, though).
After the two months have passed, place a large strainer lined with two layers of cheesecloth over a large bowl and strain out the nocino. Discard the solids, and empty the infused liquid back into the mason jar and seal it tight. Store in a cool and dark place for 3 more months, then serve and enjoy it!