Made by steeping unripe green walnuts in alcohol, this dark, nutty liqueur is traditionally made in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, where it is known as nocino. Historians believe it actually originated in the British Isles, made by Pictish tribes for their midsummer rites. It is thought the recipe was taken back to Italy by Britain’s Roman occupiers.
Nocino is very simple to make but you need a little patience (the nut kernels are steeped in vodka for six weeks, and the resulting liquid is best left to mature for a year before drinking). You also need to take a bit of care: the sap of the green walnuts and the resulting dark liquid will stain skin, clothing and work surfaces. Wear gloves when handling and preparing the nuts, and take extra care when straining and bottling the liqueur.
Pick the walnut fruits before the nuts begin to harden inside – test one by seeing if you can push a skewer right through without any resistance – usually around late June.
You can vary the other flavourings – some recipes use cinnamon, anise or vanilla and substitute orange zest for the lemon – but we’ve used the forager’s favourite, wood avens root, for its delicious clove-like warmth.
- 850g green walnuts, picked before the shells begin to harden
- 1 large wood avens root, thoroughly cleaned
- Zest of 1 lemon, pared in strips using a vegetable peeler
- 350g granulated sugar
- 750ml vodka
- Wash and dry the walnuts. Wearing gloves and an apron, cut the walnuts into quarters with a good strong knife. Put the quarters into a large 1-litre (or larger) jar as you cut them, and clean off the board immediately to stop it from being stained by the walnut sap.
- Add the wood avens root, lemon zest and sugar to the walnuts in the jar. Pour over the vodka, making sure that everything is submerged, then fasten the lid and shake well to mix.
- Store in a cool, dry place for six weeks, shaking every few days. The nocino will darken dramatically through a dark emerald green to inky black.
- After six weeks, strain the liquid through a double layer of fine muslin or a coffee filter (be very careful – the walnuts and nocino are very staining) and pour into sterilised glass bottles. Fasten the lids of the bottles and leave to mature for a year if possible – at first the nocino will have a bitter edge but this will mellow over time. If stored in a cool dry place, the nocino should keep for several years.
To make a Walnut Old Fashioned: combine 60ml bourbon with1½ tablespoons nocino and 4 dashes Angostura or orange bitters in a mixing glass with ice. Stir until chilled. Strain into a tumber and add fresh ice. Garnish with a strip of orange zest and some brandied cherries .
Recipe and photos by Otherwise for Wild Food UK