Nuts for Nocino

Black walnut trees are rooted throughout Northeast Ohio. The timber market covets their dark, hard wood. Patient foragers use a hammer to remove both husk and shell from the tree’s ripe nuts. After staining my hands dark chocolate brown trying to free the nutmeat from the outer layers, I gave up and bought my nuts already shelled.

Then I discovered that the unripe nuts can be used for pickling and liqueur. In mid-June, before the inner shell hardens, the entire immature nut—husk, shell, and nutmeat—can be cut-up for pickling or steeping in vodka. The pickles are British in origin, while the liqueur, known as Nocino, is from Northern Italy.

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Last summer I set out on a mission to beat nature’s greedy foragers—little red squirrels—and harvest early to make my own Nocino. I turned up numerous recipes on the Internet and consulted with the folks at Watershed Distillery in Columbus. Watershed produces five spirits from Ohio-sourced products. A spiced Nocino is one of them.

Legend has it that nuts should be gathered on June 24, to harvest the magic associated with the summer solstice or the energy of the feast day of St. John the Baptist. Different latitudes have different harvest times, and I foraged my collection in early July in Geneva. Traditionally, the ensuing liqueur is prepared and aged over the next six months for Christmas consumption. And truly, time is magic.

Armed with a basket of nuts that look like mini-limes and were tacky to the touch, I produced a maple cutting board and placed the nuts beside it on the counter. I quartered the pale green orbs with my lightweight Global chef’s knife and exposed their creamy interior. Curious, I licked an open nut and shuddered at the bitterness. I kept the faith and carried on.

I half-filled a one-gallon heritage glass jar with quarters and covered them with vodka. Because this was a local project, I chose Seven Brothers Distilling Co. in Painesville. Less than an hour after dousing the nuts in clear liquid, the mixture was an espresso hue.

The next step was hardest. Leave the jar alone for six weeks so the nuts could release their essence to the spirit. Impatient, I tested halfway and recoiled at the astringency.

Six weeks later, I filtered the liquid through a mesh strainer and divided it between two 1-quart Mason jars. The first I dosed with sugar. To the other jar I added simple syrup in an amount equal to the walnut liquid. Now the liquids tasted how I imagine sweet kerosene might taste.

I was certain I’d have to go the route of gin production and enhance my Nocino with botanicals and spices. After all, Watershed Distillery does a fine job creating their Nocino this way. Or, at the worst, I’d dump both the product and this story.

Then, three weeks later. I poured an inch into a shot glass, scrunched my nose and tipped the glass to my lips. The sticky liquid’s bitter edge had softened, like tannins do in a fine wine. Still, I wouldn’t drink it on purpose.

The liquid appeared murky, so I poured it through three changes of coffee filters lining a mesh sieve and threw away the fine “silt” each time. Then, I bottled the dark liquid in glass decanters from thrift stores for a more elegant presentation.

By Christmas, the bitter flavor had softened into a slightly spicy taste with a hint of clove (I’d added none). I expected something like Jägermeister and I got something more like Christmas cookies.

Nine months after cutting up nuts, I sampled again. Time really was magic. I’d done nothing new and I had a slightly sweet, spicy liqueur. In fact, it was delicious chilled or on the rocks.

I have no idea how those ancient Italians thought to wait six months for the flavor to mature. Regardless, I’m getting ready to beat squirrels to the 2017 harvest so I can start my second batch.