Legend has it that imbibing nocino prepared in the ancient manner will enable you to speak with elves, goblins, and goddesses.
Nocino is a dark liqueur made from unripened walnuts. It’s an Italian drink, though its origins may have begun with the Brits back in the era of the Picts and early Roman occupation. These days, nocino is the kind of small post-meal digestif we might enjoy after dinner to aid digestion and add a bit of refinement to the evening.
There were a number of superstitions associated with making nocino. For example, the walnuts used must be of an odd number. A barefoot and experienced woman must pick them by climbing up into the walnut tree. They must also be picked on the night of June 24 and left on the grass until the next day. Apparently the dew from that night had certain magical properties that transferred to the walnuts.
Neither could they be touched by anything metal, and so had to be cut – in four – with a knife of stone, glass or ceramic. It was also a good idea to have a bonfire going during the picking, in order to ward off any witches who might be inclined to interfere with the walnut harvest.
I confess that as romantic as those tales are, I haven’t yet followed any of them (maybe the one about using odd numbers of walnuts, but if so, it was only by accident). The walnuts must be very young, green, as smooth as an egg on the outside and easy to cut all the way through.
The recipes for nocino are all rather similar. Some use more or less sugar, add or omit certain spices, vary the length of time the liqueur should sit and mellow, and so on. Some also add the spices and sugar right at the beginning while others add them after the green walnuts have steeped for a few weeks. I generally add the sugar and spices after the initial steeping time of 40 days.
Here’s my nocino recipe, divided into two parts (pre-steep and post-steep):
Part I (pre-steep)
- around 3 dozen green, unripe walnuts, washed and quartered
- zest of 1 lemon – use a vegetable peeler to peel strips from around the lemon
- 1 bottle vodka (most suggest using a cheap vodka; I say use a decent vodka, one you’d drink on its own)
1. Place the quartered walnut wedges into a large, sealable jar with the lemon peel strips scattered throughout.
2. Fill with vodka. Seal the jar and set it aside somewhere cool to sit for 40 days. Give it a shake back-&-forth every day.
Part II (post-steep)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 cup cane sugar
- 1 or 2 cinnamon sticks
- 5 or 6 cloves
- 1 tbsp or so of honey
1. Combine the water, sugar, cinnamon sticks and cloves and honey into a saucepan and heat to dissolve the sugar and steep the spices. When finished steeping remove the cinnamon sticks and cloves and let the syrup cool.
2. Strain the walnuts and lemon peels from the vodka. Add the cooled spiced sugar syrup to the vodka and now let that sit for another month or so. The longer it sits, the mellower it gets.
3. After 5 or 6 weeks, strain the liqueur to remove any sediment or bits that may be left. I’ll likely use my coffee chemex and filters to strain. Bottle and cork it, make a funky label for it, and bring it out as an after-dinner digestif.
Note: While the walnuts are steeping during the first 40 days, the contents of the jar will remain tea-like in appearance. After you open the jar to remove the walnuts and add the spices, the liqueur will turn black from oxidation. That’s to be expected. Nothing to worry about.
Enjoy! And if you should find yourself chatting with an elf or goblin after dinner one night, I might suggest cutting back on the nocino.