As I write this, it is the 27th of June, a 105 degrees outside, and I have chosen an incredibly messy project to pass away the day. I am reminded of the saying, “a hard nut to crack” and I’m not sure if it is the nut or I who has chosen this activity! June 24 is the feast of St. John the Baptist, the traditional day to take green walnuts, crack them, and convert them into a liquor called nocino (pronounced no-chee-no). Well, it’s not the 24th, but close enough, and in my backyard I have this most beautiful walnut tree laden with young green walnuts. These bright green globes nestle among the branches like Christmas lights looking ever so tender and tantalizing. I remember a boyfriend of mine when I was at the University of Pisa proudly telling me the story of nocino and how his family made it every year. I remember sipping it and wondering how this rich, syrupy black liquor could have any fans at all. As the legend goes, on the night of San Giovanni, the tender green walnuts are gathered by barefoot women who climb the tree in search of the best, most intact fruit, taking care not to rip the skin by tearing it off the branch. The nuts are left in the night air to be kissed by the morning dew and then infused that day. Forty days later, the mixture is strained, bottled and stored in a cool dark place. The experts suggest opening the liquor on All Saints Day or even Christmas…it gets better and better as it sits. No fear of my going barefoot under the 105 degree sun….and no dew to grace these lovely globes. No matter…I’m going to try this grand experiment – my walnuts are too beautiful to end up on the waste pile in the street.
As you can see I was trying a variety of cutting, smashing, splitting methods. The nuts are really hard, not the tender souls they appear to be. The best way to work through two pounds is to first slice the nut with an electric knife to create a little indentation, then stab the nut with a sharp knife, use a mallet to drive it down, then split it open. Yeah! Sweat was pouring across my brow and I kept thinking, “What did I get myself into?!?” Gloves are a must because the black juice is used as a veritable dye and will stain your hands for a long time! The next task was to measure the sugar (3 1/2 cups), add some cloves, the zest of one lemon and one orange, and a whole nutmeg. I also added a teaspoon of coffee beans. Then…the alcohol. I used 750 ml of Everclear and rounded it out with a bit more vodka. I set it in our lovely hot sun to begin the infusion.
The infusion turns into nasty murky green sludge (I’m glad someone forewarned me). I used two vases because I didn’t have a large enough one. So back to the store I went to get a larger vessel. When I poured the contents into the new jar, I could see the magic brew begin to roil and seep. Under the hot sun, even a day later, the liquid looked as though it were boiling on the edges. Here is what it looks like two days later.
Every ten days or so, I will turn the vase upside down a couple of times to stir the contents. And then I will wait….and wait. I’ll keep you posted on our progress as we proceed in this new adventure for the next thirty-eight days!