Friday, August 12, 2011

Nocino - The Beginning

Seasonality is a lost perspective in modern day society. It is important to be able to know the seasons, and see them changing. Many great foods in this world have a very short window of opening its door to delicious consumption. All to often I discover great things researching new foods, but that door has already closed. I have to make a mental note to persue that goal in another year. This one I caught the tail end of. Driving to work one day I noticed a green walnut laying in a freshly mowed lawn, and the wheels began to turn. Technically the very tail end of unripe walnut season I was fortunately to find a relatively young tree still bearing fruit, and a day later might have been too late.

Nocino is a walnut liquor that hails from Modena, Emilia Romanga. It is made by steeping unripe green walnuts in spirits, and usually used as a cold weather, or after dinner beverage. There are many recipes on the web for making this, but I chose to stick very close to tradition. I was scouring my copy off Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi, which is the first mass marketed cookbook in Italy published in 1891, and found a recipe for Nocino:

30 Walnuts
1.5L Spirits
750g Sugar
2g Cinnamon
10 Cloves
400ml Water
1 Lemon Peel

Being a cook, I simply cant afford to donate 1.5L of distilled alcohol to a science experiment. The alcohol they used was probably around 80-85%, so I figured with a 40% alcohol I could probably negate the water out of the recipe. If it ends up being to strong, I can always add but not take away (without distillation). Vodka is probably the most tasteless alcohol available in Ontario, we are not able to get Alcool or Everclear (Ontario liquor laws are retarded for lack of a better term). So I decided on a 750ml bottle of 40% vodka. The only other change, is in the form of addition. A very good Chef of mine always paired cinnamon and cloves with star anise, which both marries and adds flavours in a very luscious way. So I added star anise to the recipe as well.


15 Green Walnuts
750ml Vodka -40%
375g Sugar
1 Cinnamon stick
5 Cloves
1 Star Anise
1/2 Lemon rind (cut into strips)


Halve the walnuts, on a plastic cutting board (this stuff will stain badly) and add to a 1.5L jar. Pour in the rest of your ingredients, and shake well. This stuff goes black quick! Leave in a warm place for 1.5 - 2 months. After this strain out all the solids through a coffee filter or cheesecloth, and bottle. Age for six months to a year or more as the flavours mellow.


ChazFrench said...

Hi there, I came across this via Punk Domestics. I have a Japanese Walnut growing right out my back door, I think I'm going to give this a try.

How unripe should the walnuts be? These are about 1.5 inches long and about an inch wide at the largest, most are much smaller. They started growing about two months ago, if what I've read online is right they should be fully ripe in fall.

Chef Chaz

commiskaze said...

Sorry for the late reply, they should still be rather soft so crack one open and see if it is starting to get "woody" on the inside. One thing to watch for though is all walnut species are not created equally and some are incredibly bitter and full on tannins, but hey give it a shot and let me know!

Jen said...

Hello! Do you happen to know exactly how bad an idea it would be to make a version of this with walnuts that are ripe enough to have formed a hard (as in completely impenetrable) shell under the green rind. Just out of curiosity, I picked one up off someone's lawn (I too am in Ontario, so chances are we're talking the same kind of walnut), took the rind off the nut, and have been steeping rind and nut in some grappa. So far, it looks and smells just like nocino, which I've had in Italy. Obviously, if it ends up tasting disgusting, I'll have answered my own question. But what if it tastes good? Any idea whether nocino made with too-ripe walnuts is actually toxic or something? I haven't been able to find anything online that explains exactly why the nuts must be unripe.

commiskaze said...

What we commonly have in the Carolinian forest of Ontario, are Black Walnuts. What you will probably find is that they have a great deal more tannins in them then your classic English Walnut (which we also have around here but much more rare). As far as toxins other then tannins go I am at a loss but have tried researching them. Mine was made with walnuts that were probably just on the edge of being ripe, still drinking it today, albeit it is STRONG. Another possible idea is that since we do not get overproof spirits in Ontario some of the chemicals responsible for the taste are not leeched out of the walnuts (I did read that somewhere a long time ago but cant remember the source). As far as too ripe being toxic, well you can eat them so I assume probably not. Around here (Woodstock Area) the walnuts are still unripe enough. Hope that helps, and sorry for the wait!

Jen said...

Hi, thanks for your response. My experimental mixture has been steeping for about three weeks now--just stuck a finger in it, and it's crazy bitter. Perhaps the riper the walnut, the more vigorous the tannins? However, I haven't yet added the sugar (following a different method from yours), so that might tone it down to something drinkable, if I'm brave enough. Unless the shell gets toxic as it hardens--which seems unlikely--you're probably right about it being safe enough. If not, I'll be a fun anecdote for the folks in the ER.

Some fruit farmers from the Niagara region come up to sell at our local farmers' market (I'm in Ottawa) and they've got walnuts, so next year I might ask them if they can bring me some when they're still soft enough to cut through.

commiskaze said...

Yeah when it first starts steeping its crazy bitter! From what Ive heard Is they make it in the fall to enjoy for Christmas. I tried it a few weeks after, and I choked it up, but dont worry it will mellow quite a bit. Ive drank it quite a few times, and other then getting sick for the obvious reasons cant attribute it to the Nocino. Good luck! Also, sugar helps.

Jen said...

So, thought I'd report back--I strained it out, added some sugar syrup, and tasted a little spoonful of it. Rather to my surprise, it was REALLY good--as good as any of the "properly" made stuff I've had in Italy, maybe better, because I like liqueurs to be on the bitter side. I had also posted my question on an Italian housewife's blog--she doubted that it would be toxic, but went on a quest to find someone who knew for sure. I just checked back on her blog tonight, and sure enough, she finally found someone who had missed the proper harvest day and made his nocino with mature nuts. He, reportedly, suffered no ill effects.

Since I made so little to begin with (less than a cup, I'd say), we've almost finished it. Next year, I'm getting a quart or so of green nuts from the fruit farmer guy (he told me he supplies them regularly to Croats, Poles, and Russians--who knew?) and making a good-sized batch. It tastes so good, and I've never seen it in the LCBO. I used a really simply variation of the recipe: just nuts, cloves, and grappa, with dissolved sugar added after the steeping. It's the recipe here (minus the cinnamon, which I don't like) --my Italian housewife's blog. I'm amazed how complex the taste is from the walnuts alone. Thanks for your help, by the way. This was all a lot of fun.

commiskaze said...

Hey I am glad everything worked out alright, and thanks for the link to the other site, one thing I noticed is that the leaves are WAY different then the black walnuts in Canada. Well have to find another project to collaborate on!

Jen said...

Hey there, just an update in case you're thinking about nocino again. I learned an expensive walnut lesson this year: the walnuts grown by walnut farmers are the kind pictured in the Italian blog post I sent you, and are extremely different from the wild black walnut. I bought a bunch of the farmed ones at the start of July, still young enough to cut through, and started steeping them. After a month, I still had an anemic looking nocino with no fragrance. I thought maybe it was a maturity thing, so I got some more last weekend (mid-August)--no use, they were just the same. I finally got in touch with the wild tree nut community here in Ottawa (yes, there is such a thing) and got some tips on where to find more black ones. I've stuck a few into each jar of nocino, and am hoping that with a few more weeks it'll be as good as it was last year. Who would have guessed that native Canadian walnuts actually make better nocino than the "traditional" kind?