Friday, July 16, 2010

Dew Magic

Last year was my first season making nocino, the beloved digestive elixir made of green walnuts. In Italy, the walnuts are traditionally harvested on June 24th. This is mid summer's day, the day of San Giovanni by the Catholic calendar. They say there is something magical in the morning air, the nuts are covered with dew magic. Well, this year mother nature was moving things a little slower than usual. The nuts were less than half their mature size on mid summer's day. I waited another forty days before harvesting. I didn't know if there would be any dew magic lingering in July, but I was willing to give it a chance.
I wanted to try some variations inspired by Jim Dixon. I would make my traditional nocino, but instead of flavoring it with cinnamon and clove, I would try cinnamon and vanilla. The first stage of making nocino couldn't be easier. You pick the nuts before their hard shells form, slice or smash them, and macerate them with alcohol. If you want to add flavorings, throw them in the jar as well.
Then you wait. I usually just set the jars out in the garden, exposed to sunlight for about sixty days. At this point, you need to dilute the alcohol level with sugar syrup. If you start with 95% alcohol, you will want to cut it at least 50%, but be careful of the balance of sugar and alcohol. It should be bitter, not sweet, and it should be a sipping drink. I like the balance at about 75 proof, but many people like it a little more mellow at 60 proof. It's up to you. After the flavors have fully developed, you'll need to strain it and discard the solids. There will also be a good amount of sediment, so filter or decant, or both. Then bottle it and finish a hearty autumn or winter meal with a nice digestif.
I had heard of another green walnut liqueur, but hadn't tried vin de noix until this year. As the name implies, this is a French variation using both distilled alcohol and wine. I was surprised at how smooth it was, and the flavors were very pleasantly balanced. I was expecting it to be very astringent and tannic, but that wasn't on the palate at all. The method is even more direct, since you use wine instead of the sugar syrup, you can mix everything in one stage. In fact, some people make their nocino in one stage using a lower proof spirit like vodka instead of hard alcohol, but the walnut infusion is not as good. The recipe is very similar, but the leaves are also used in vin de noix.

Now the jars are sitting patiently in the garden, soaking up the sun and the walnut's power. Although San Giovanni wasn't blessing the process this year, I hope I've captured a few drops of the dew magic.

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