For many years I’ve watched with envy while several of my favorite food bloggers in France, Italy and California harvest green walnuts in June to make classic Nocino (Italian) or Liqueur de Noix (French). The liqueur is like bittersweet walnut extract. Poured over ice it makes a lovely aperitif, and it’s also yummy served over ice cream. Unfortunately I live in Minnesota where it’s to cold for standard walnut trees to grow. My only option is to use native black walnuts which are incredibly flavorful, but the green ones are much more bitter and tannic than their European cousin. Would it work?
I have a plot at Downling Community Garden, the historic World War II victory garden that was founded in 1943. Ringing the east side of the garden is a grove of native hardwoods, including many huge black walnut trees. Last June after working in my plot, I notices the trees were covered in the green nuts. For Nocino you need to harvest the nuts just before they begin to form their interior nut shell. I broke one open and they were perfect. A foraging we go! I grabbed a bag and filled it to the top.
Once home, I washed the green globes and assembled my production line. A heavy chef’s knife or cleaver is required, as the nuts are stout little suckers. They are also slippery so be extra careful. A heavy butchers block or cutting board is also needed, but know that it will definitely be stained by the time you are done. The tannin in the nuts doesn’t harm the wood, it just dyes it dark brown. For the same reason you’ll need gloves for your hands and an apron or old clothes, unless you want them stained. Cut the black walnuts into quarters, enough to fill two half-gallon jars, or four quart jars.
Since I had no idea what the addition of black walnuts would do these recipes, I made two different kinds of Nocino. One recipe is just plain black walnuts mixed with the vodka and sugar. The other is spiced with warm spices, orange peel, red wine and vodka. Some people say to infuse the walnuts for a couple months, others say a year. I did the later for both recipes, then strained them and added sugar to taste. I used way more sugar than I thought I would need, due to the excessive drying tannins.
The plain black walnut version created a heady black green liqueur that is simultaneously sweet and bitter, with a pallet stripping side of tannin. It’s kinda like a punch in the face by a nice old Frenchman – sweet and appealingly foreign at first then – wham! Right in the kisser. (Also, it stains the hell out of your shirt.) If you’ve never tried black walnuts, the flavor is way more exotic than standard walnuts. This liqueur captures the flavor essence perfectly.
The spiced black walnut Nocino is also delicious. My partner thought it tasted like cola, which it kinda does, but with way more complexity. Cola does indeed have many of the same ingredients, with the exception of the black walnuts. (Here’s a yummy cola syrup post if you’d like to make your own.) I think this spiced Nocino would work great in eggnog or used to soak fruit cake (yes!) Of course it would also go with bourbon…
Try the plain, the spiced, or make up your own Nocino combo (every French and Italian grandma does). Whether you have black walnuts or regular, these recipes will make enough Nocino to last through a hot summer or a long dark winter.