This is the second post in a series on homemade Italian liqueurs. Using Maria Pignatelli Ferrante’s Puglia – A Culinary Memoir  as a guide, we began our series by making Rosolio di limone. Next up is Nocino, an ebon liqueur made with immature green walnuts traditionally picked on or around 24 June, the feast day celebrating the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.
A short side-note in Giuliano Bugialli’s Foods of Naples and Campania  sparked my interest in Nocino. Bugialli writes: “Campania produces a walnut liqueur called Nocino that is made in Emilia-Romagna as well. Following the old custom, fresh walnuts that have not yet hardened are marinated—still in the shell—in pure grain alcohol, along with nutmeg, cinnamon and other spices.”
Nocino has a wonderful mythos. Traditionally the liqueur’s green walnuts are gathered—some communities employ tree-scaling, barefooted virgins—on the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist when, most probably, a green walnut’s essential oils are near its zenith. Further, some only use an odd number of walnuts to make Nocino. (There is no consensus on the exact number; I have recipes that call for 25, 29, 33 and 35 walnuts. [I disregard any recipe that calls for an even number of walnuts].)
Ferrante’s Nocino recipe is typical of the dozen or so recipes I have collected over the years. Each of these recipes is slightly different but all are generally a variation on a theme of green walnuts, alcohol and sugar.
- 25 green, not yet ripe, walnuts, picked between June 20 and June 25, quartered (not shelled)
- 1 quart alcohol [pure, distilled]
- 5 cloves
- ½ cinnamon stick
- Peel of 1 lemon
- 2 ½ cups sugar
- ¾ cup water
(Wear gloves, as these young walnuts are coated with a strong natural dye.) Wash the walnuts and dry them. Put the walnut pieces in a jar with the alcohol, cloves, cinnamon stick, and lemon peel. Seal hermetically and allow to steep for 40 days, shaking up the contents occasionally.
After 40 days, make a syrup in a pot with the sugar and water and boil for a few minutes. Filter the alcohol, discarding the walnuts…and other items, and combine with the cooled syrup. Filter again and transfer to bottles. Seal hermetically. Wait at least 3 months before serving.
Perhaps the most difficult part of making Nocino is finding a source for its main ingredient: immature, green walnuts. Walnut trees abound in my corner of the San Francisco Bay Area; I forage my crop from unsprayed trees of neighbors and friends. You can also use the Internet to find farmers that sell green walnuts by mail order.
If local walnuts are available, most recipes advise gathering the green walnuts on 24 June, the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist (and near the date of the Summer Solstice). Ferrante calls for nuts gathered between the 20th and 25th of June. The Ordine del Nocino Modenese, an association in Modena, Italy that promotes local Nocino, recommends a 24 June harvest date, but suggests it is permissible to gather nuts between the 6th and 24th of June. This range speaks to the relationship between Christian and pagan celebrations (in this case the Nativity of St. John the Baptist and Midsummer) and traditional agricultural cycles and foraging seasons. Most likely an immature walnut’s fruit is “ready” on or around the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist, which falls near the Summer Solstice.
Ferrante warns that young walnuts “are coated with a strong natural dye.” Yes, cut green walnuts can stain your hands and clothes an inky black. I do not recommend quartering the walnuts on any valued surface; I use an old wooden cutting board and exercise care when handling the cut walnuts.
Ferrante recommends using “pure, distilled” alcohol. As discussed in my previous Rosolio di limone post, Ferrante calls for a high alcohol content grain spirit such as Everclear. The 151 proof version of Everclear is an excellent solvent for extracting flavors, but it is not readily available (or legal) in many parts of the United States. Alternatively, you can use a high alcohol content vodka. When making a liqueur, the higher the alcohol content of your solvent, the better the extraction of essential oils.
Nocino is typically flavored with cloves, cinnamon and citrus peel (usually lemon or orange). Some Nocino recipes call for a vanilla bean. (I leave out the citrus peel and put in a snip of a vanilla bean.) Occasionally you find modern recipes that add ingredients like roasted coffee beans and juniper berries. If you are a traditionalist, then I direct you once again to the Ordine del Nocino Modenese. With its commitment to preserving and promoting Modenese Nocino, the Order believes “[c]loves and cinnamon are the only suggested flavours to be added, though their use is optional. If they are added, they should be used sparingly so as not to detract from the harmonious walnut taste of the liqueur.”
If you follow Ferrante’s Nocino recipe, your Nocino will be ready to enjoy around mid-December. The Ordine del Nocino Modenese advises infusing the walnuts for at least 60 days, but also suggests filtering Nocino in December. This is also my practice, but expect to find a range of infusion periods. An excellent Sicilian cookbook I recently purchased by Anna Tasca Lanza entited The Heart of Sicily  has a note about infusing Nocino for 40 days in a jar left in the sun. Lanza continues: “Then the brew is filtered and put away until I Morti (All Soul’s Day, November 2), when we drink it to honor the dead.” A few recipes recommend aging the decanted Nocino for a year before serving. I don’t. After filtering, I decant the dark liquid into a handsome bottle that I keep in my freezer.
I serve Nocino as an after dinner digestif. I also use Nocino as an ingredient in a favorite recipe: Cantucci di Noci e Cannella (Walnut and Cinnamon Cookies) from Biscotti – Recipes from the Kitchen of the American Academy in Rome: Rome Sustainable Food Project  by Mona Talbott and Mirella Misenti.