Nocino is dark-coloured, syrupy digestif that is usually serve chilled after a meal in small glasses.
Nocino is made from unripe, green walnut husks steeped in alcohol. It has a bittersweet flavour, tasting more herbal than nutty at first, then the nut taste follows. The bitterness comes from the tannins in the nuts, which the sugar syrup balances.
Commercial brands are 40 to 42% alcohol. Some commercial versions with artificial flavourings are also made.
Brands include FINI, Nocello, and Faled. It is made in the province of Modena, Emilia-Romagna, Italy, with production centred in Sassuolo. The “Ordine del Nocino Modenese” (“Association of Modena Nocino”) is headquartered in Spilamberto, just outside Modena (the city.) Only women are allowed to join, at a cost of € 20.00 a year.
Nocino della Cristina is a brand made in Napa, California. It is also made in Switzerland, Croatians make a similar liqueur called “Orahovac”, the Spanish one called “nocello.”
In Italy, many families have their own recipes, with each family of course thinking theirs is the best. The custom is to harvest the walnuts very early in the day, while there is still dew on them, and ideally on the morning of the 24th of June (St John the Baptist day.) You are supposed to use an odd number of walnuts (29 being the usual number given.) After it is made, first the extract should be aged for 48 days, then the finished drink for another 48 days. But the more scientifically minded pooh pooh the idea of these magic numbers, and say that the ingredients and method of preparation are what makes the difference.
In Italy, where making Nocino at home is quite common, people put an order in with their local greengrocer for green walnuts.
Green walnuts are walnuts still inside their “fruit.” The rinds of the fruit will be bright green, and inside, at the centre of the fruit, the shells will still be forming around the nuts at the centre. Ones that have a shell in an advanced stage of formation will cause the Nocino to taste bitter. The fruit overall should be hard, but not too hard.
You wash the entire nut (fruit and all), and quarter it. Even though green, the walnuts at the centre will be tough to quarter. People use a cleaver, a hefty chef knife or even a hatchet. And even though green, your cutting board and hands will still get stained walnut (note: the juice is transparent at first, browning up in a few hours.) You may wish to wear plastic gloves.
Recipes differ by the spices used. Most recipes have cinnamon and cloves in common; many add lemon rind, nutmeg and vanilla extract. Some versions add a few coffee beans, and / or black pepper. In Tuscany, it is made without the additional flavourings from the spices.
As a base, you need a high proof alcohol. The neutral tasting alcohol used in Italy will be 80 to 90% alcohol. Grain alcohol is best, better than vodka.
The nuts are steeped for about 2 months in the alcohol in the sun. At this stage, the liquid becomes so dark you can’t see through the bottle anymore.
Nocino of Monte Poro (in Calabria)
As for Nocino, but some of the green walnuts are left whole, some are quartered. The walnut pieces are steeped in a solution of 1 part Malvasia wine, 1 part alcohol (95% alcohol by volume) and 1 part sugar, along with flavourings which in addition to cinnamon and cloves can include basil, lemon, mint, thyme, sage. It is steeped for 40 days, shaken occasionally.
Then it is filtered, then bottled, and aged for a minimum of 8 months.
You can drizzle Nocino over ice cream.
The filtered-out walnut pieces can be chopped up, stored covered in sherry and served as a dessert on their own or as a topping on or in ice cream. Or, some Italians then soak these pieces in white wine for a month, to make another drink somewhat like a vermouth, or in Marsala.
Sample Home Recipe:
Wash the nuts, quarter them. inspect for worms, rot, etc. Weigh out 1.2 kg of walnuts.
Put in a very large jar that has a lid. Add 1 litre of alcohol.
- 900g of white sugar
- rind from 1 lemon
- 2 cloves
- 2 inches (5 cm) of cinnamon stick
Seal the jar. Let sit 45 days in the sun (someplace such as a windowsill.) Shake the jar once a day. After 45 days, filter through a double-layer of cheesecloth. Pour back into clean, sealed bottles. Let rest until around Christmas. If it’s too strong for your liking, dilute with bottled water.