It isn’t really close to time for starting nocino in my little part of the world, but I recognize that for some of you the time is drawing very near. I’ve been asked for the recipe more than a few times this spring so I thought I would do something ahead of time, for a change.
There are so many recipes floating around out there that I thought I would speak about it more as an herbalist and less as a foodie, for a novel approach. Before we get into all of that, we should clear up a question that I have been asked a few times now as to which species of walnut to use in the preparations of nocino?
For those who need some identification help, I’ve added the picture to the left. As you can see the leaves of the two types of walnut trees are quite different from one another so you should have no problems. The leaves on top are from a black walnut (Juglans nigra) and the bottom leaves are from an English walnut (Juglans regia). The most authentic recipes call for English walnuts. If you look at Libovitz’s recipe you can see that he is using English walnuts, however, I remain unconvinced that one must use English Walnuts. I would imagine the that recommendation is based on the fact that these were the only type of Walnuts growing in Europe until the mid-17th century, but I see no reason why they aren’t interchangeable. The early American colonists seemed to think they were, especially as they had a hard time getting English walnuts established.
I have black walnuts growing behind my house, so black walnuts are what I use and I have been quite happy with the results. If I stumble across a plentiful supply of the English variety, I will have to do a comparison. The sacrifices I must make for my research…
As usual I like to research the history of my preparations. I tried to pin down the origin of the drink. I had almost given up on the idea when I found a journal article which attributes its origins to the Celts. The authors of the journal cite literature from an Italian monastery which also confirms the use of the preparation “as a tonic and digestive aid” and attributes the origins of the drink to the Druids who traditionally collected “green unripe walnuts”at the end of their summer solstice rituals. It remains traditional in Italy to gather the walnuts for this preparation on St. John the Baptist’s day which is the Catholic holy day that seems to have replaced the pagan solstice rituals. So every year on St. Johns Day, I pick his wort and start my nocino.
The following is the recipe for nocino as translated (probably poorly, I used Google) from a pdf published by the Ordine del Nocino Modenese, the monastery which claims to have originated the drink in Italy.
1 liter of alcohol 95 °
700-900 grams of sugar
1 kg of walnuts (33-35 nuts about depending on the size but always in number odd)
The nuts must be strictly locally sourced and free from any treatment. They also need to be , as tradition indicates , collected at the turn of the feast of St. John the Baptist .The right consistency of the nut should be assessed and pierce it with a pin and / or verified visually by splitting in half with a knife.
Optional: Cloves and cinnamon in small quantities and dosed in such a way that the aroma prevalent in liquor is always that of the walnut and the overall bouquet you create a harmonious result.
The nuts, once harvested, they must be cut into 4 pieces and placed in a glass container (no rubber seals) together with the sugar. After being kept in the sun for 1-2 days and stir
Periodically, the nuts are ready to be added alcohol and any flavorings. The product thus obtained must be positioned in an area partially exposed to the sun, occasionally opened and shuffled, and not filtered before 60 days.
It is advisable to bottling in glass containers dark and / or refine the product in small wooden barrels… can choose either chestnut oak that provided that the barrel has been properly treated before use. The preservation of the walnut must be carried out in a cool place and for a minimum period of 12 months if you want to fully appreciate all the characteristics of this liquor.
This is certainly a recipe that screams to be played around with a bit so this year I have decided to make a traditional batch with some cloves and another batch flavored with Angelica now that I have that growing in abundance.
The brew is not without a medicinal history. Although M.Grieves focuses on pickling the young nuts, there are historical references to green nuts combined in some way with sugar and used as a digestive aide. Gerard says “the greene and tender nuts boiled in sugar… are a most pleasant and delectable meate, comfort the stomach and expel poison.” Culpeper recommends a very similar preparation saying, “The young green nuts taken before they be half ripe and preserved with sugar, are of good use for those who have weak stomachs.” He also mentions that ounce or two of a distillation of the same age of husk, is used to “cool the heat of agues and resist the infection of the plague.” That might be a new tradition to add to my summer solstice celebration. I’d guess a black walnut distillation smells amazing. I may have to give Susanna Avery’s recipe for pickling the green nuts a try as well.
Let your nutts be green as not to have any shell; then run a kniting pin two ways through them; then put them into as much ordinary vinegar as will cover them, and let them stand thirty days, shifting them every too days in ffrech vinegar; then ginger and black peper of each ounce, rochambol [ Spanish garlic] two ounces slised, a handfull of bay leaves; put all togeather cold; then wrap up every wall nutt singly in a vine leaf, and put them in putt them into the ffolloing pickel: for 200 of walnutts take two gallans of the best whit vineager, a pint of the best mustard seed, fore ounces of horse radish, with six lemons sliced with the rins [rinds]on, cloves and mace half an ounce, a stone jar, and put the pickel on them, and cork them close up; and they will be ffitt for use in three months, and keep too years.
Alamprese, C., “Characterization and antioxidant activity of nocino liqueur,” Food Chemistry (2005): 495-502.
Avery, S. Her Book, 12 May 1688 “To Pickel Wallnutts Green.”
Culpeper, N., Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, (Manchester: J Gleave and Son, 1826), 194.
Gerarde, J., The Herbal or General History of Plants, 1633 edition, (New York: Dover,1975), 1441.