June 24 is the Feast Day of San Giovanni (St. John the Baptist), the patron saint of Florence, and traditionally it’s also the day when unripe green walnuts (noci) are gathered for making nocino, a complex, nutty, and slightly bitter dark-brown liqueur.
Nocino usually served as an after-dinner digestivo, but it can also be used to “correct” a shot of espresso (espresso with a shot of liquor is called a "caffè corretto," or "corrected coffee"), poured over gelato, mixed into... cocktails, or used in place of vanilla extract in baking, especially when making biscotti.
Most commercial versions of nocino contain artificial caramel color and flavoring and are not true infusions from fresh walnuts, so it's really worthwhile to make your own. Though it can be tricky to track down the green (sometimes known as "wet") walnuts, once you've got them, the rest is simple and mostly hands-off—it just requires some patience, as it takes time for the final results.
Green walnuts are only available for a brief time every June, so while you don't necessarily need to make them on San Giovanni's feast day, the window of opportunity is limited (besides walnut liqueur, they are also used to make pickled walnuts). If you happen to live in a place where walnuts are grown, you can try buying them directly at a walnut farm.
Even if you've had a walnut tree and helped with walnuts harvests, you may never have examined a green walnut up close. When sliced in half, the unripe walnut is clear, with a jelly-like texture. It can look like a tiny, translucent brain.
Recipes for nocino vary widely on the spices used. Some add juniper berries, vanilla beans, or orange zest. These instructions are very sparing with them since a good nocino doesn’t taste strongly of any individual spice. The green walnut flavor should predominate: nutty, slightly bitter, a touch oaky, and a bit vanilla-y and sweet as well.
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Gather Your Ingredients
You will need:
- 1 gallon-sized glass jar with a lid
- 25 green walnuts
- 1 quart (4 cups) 190-proof Everclear or substitute
- 4 whole cloves
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Zest of 1 lemon (You can use a vegetable peeler and make wide swaths of zest, to make it easier to strain the pieces out later. Try to avoid including the bitter white pith.)
- 1/2 whole nutmeg (grated on all sides)
- 10 coffee beans
- Simple syrup: 3 cups sugar dissolved in 4 cups water (added after the first 30-day infusion period)
- Rubber gloves to wear when... slicing the green walnuts
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Wash and Quarter the Walnuts
After rinsing and drying the walnuts thoroughly, use a sharp chef's knife to halve the walnuts lengthwise, then halve each half again to form quarters.
Note that they might be a bit difficult to cut, even though the immature shells lining the inside of the green husks should still be quite thin.
It's a good idea to wear disposable rubber gloves for this part, or the walnut juice will stain your fingers and nails yellow. If you don't clean your nails, the stain later turns dark brown.
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Place All Ingredients In the Jar, Shake, Then Set It and Forget It.
- Place all of your ingredients (except for the simple syrup) in the glass jar and then pour in the Everclear.
- Close the lid tightly and give the jar a good shake to distribute the ingredients.
- Then let it sit in a cool, dark place for 30 to 40 days.
- You can give it a little shake every now and then to redistribute the ingredients.
Most recipes for nocino instruct you to leave it in a bright, sunny spot to macerate, but that seems counter to all logic about infusing liquor. Light can degrade and... destroy flavor and aroma compounds, It is better to store the jar in a cool, dark cupboard. Just a few hours later, a peek into the jar revealed that the walnuts had already begun to oxidize and turn black (particularly any that were above the water line).
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Add the Simple Syrup, Then Hurry Up and Wait
- Add simple syrup and shake well.
- Return jar to a cool, dark place and let sit for another 30 to 60 days.
- Finally, strain out the solids and your nocino is done.
Most people advise letting it sit for about 40 days before adding simple syrup, then letting it sit for at least another 30 days before straining out the solids. At that point it is, in theory, ready to drink, but common wisdom (and the Order of Nocino Modenese) dictate that to really get something special, you need to let it age and mellow... for at least a year, or better yet, two.