It was five years ago that I tasted nocino for the first time, the Italian liqueur made from green walnuts. I was the sous-chef of an Italian restaurant in Portland, and we were buying salt and olive oil from Jim Dixon. He also makes his own nocino at home. It was rich and bittersweet, nutty, of course, but something dreamy, something full of mystery.
You'll find nocino throughout northern Italy, but it is still relatively unknown here in the States. I wanted to learn as much as I could about it, and make my own. As good fortune would have it, my neighbor across the street has a grand old walnut tree. I climbed into the branches with a basket, and after a few twists and scratches, had plenty of nuts to flavor some spirits.
The green walnuts are traditionally picked on the eve of the Festa di San Giovanni. This is Midsummer's Day, the 24th of June, and the time of year when the walnuts are starting to reach their full size, but have not yet started to harden. The shell and the nut inside the husk are still soft and white. I quartered the nuts, mixed them with sugar, some cloves, cinnamon sticks and lemon peel, then covered them with alcohol. According to the tradition, the mixture should be stored with exposure to sunlight for forty days, then filtered and drank deeply to honor the dead on All Soul's Day, November the 2nd (and throughout the winter months).
While I was researching different recipes, I noticed a trend. Many of the American recipes are pretty straightforward, simply covering the nuts, sugar and spices with vodka. The Italian recipes use grappa or grain alcohol. This facilitates a stronger flavor infusion, because of the higher alcohol content. Toward the end of the process, they add a simple syrup to dilute the proof of the liqueur and adjust the sweetness. I have certainly experienced the effectiveness of this method of infusion in the making of limoncello. Just to be sure, I made both recipes on the same day (St. John's Day, of course) to find out once and for all which renders the finer result.
For now, we wait. There will be a toast at my house on All Soul's Day. Come on over.