July 20, 2010

Nocino Sunday

This past Sunday I took the opportunity to make two gallon jugs of nocino. What's that? Nocino (no-CHEE-no) is a green walnut liqueur common to Italy and southern France. It's traditionally made at the end of June, when walnuts are still immature and easy to quarter. It's a late year here in the northern Willamette Valley, so the walnuts weren't ready at the usual time.

My friend and wine conspirator Anne Hubatch of Helioterra Wines and her husband Robert host a terrific nocino party at the end of each June. Last year, the event was written up in Portland's Mix Magazine complete with pictures of the whole affair, a basic recipe for nocino that I followed and notes about various attendees who do different things to produce their own unique liqueur. Even if you don't read the rest of this point, check out that article.

Nocino is simple and fun to make. I walked down the block and asked a neighbor who has a terrific old walnut in his front yard if I could harvest some nuts. He said sure, so I got my ladder and tree trimmer/lopper and went to work selecting the best ones I could find. No squirrel bites, minimal spots, like that. For two batches I needed sixty and it didn't take long to get those.

Then I came home and washed the walnuts in a colander. They should look like small limes, and you cut them husk and all into quarters to put into a gallon jug. I tested one out before harvest all the nuts and I noticed the cut edges browned quickly. I made a point to put the liquids into the jug before the cut up nuts so that they wouldn't oxidize before being part of the mixture. I'd read that the walnuts will stain your hands fiercely, so I wore gloves while cutting.

So what all goes into nocino? As you can see, white wine, everclear, lemon zest, cloves, cinnamon sticks and sugar. And walnuts, of course. However, on Anne's advice I substituted half of the everclear with vodka. We had some old Russian vodka in the freezer. Apparently quality of alcohol isn't a big deal, so I took the opportunity to buy the cheapest plastic bottle of vodka to supplement what I had.

Ok, into the gallon jugs went all the liquids and I began cutting up the walnuts, shoving them through the bottle neck and into the liquid. That took a bit of time because I was making two batches, the only difference being the amount of sugar I added. Some people say that nocino recipes often suggest too much sugar. What can I say? I have a sweet tooth and I'm not at all opposed to sweeter dessert wines like Aussie muscats and sweet Malmsey, provided of course there's balance. In this case, the tannin from the walnuts and the spices add some balancing bitterness, but who knows how this will turn out? So I made one batch with quite a bit of sugar, 1 kilo, and another batch with just 500g. Some people sweeten their nocino to taste at bottling, but I'm guessing it's better to do it all up front. We'll see what we get.

You see, the key with nocino, like Banyuls or Madeira, is that you intentionally oxidize the crap out of everything by leaving the not quite full jugs out in the sunlight and heat of summer for months. That process essentially caramelizes things, turning what might now seem like a bitter, green beverage into a deep brown, gingerbread and wonderful Christmas cake in a glass elixer. Come the fall, I'll strain the liquid into small bottles that will be ready to drink come the holidays but improve for a few years or more, if you can keep your hands off it. That's also what I made two batches, so I have some to give away, some to enjoy soon, and some to enjoy further on down the road. Based on the various vintages of nocino I've tasted from what Anne and Robert call their "cabinet of joy," I'm more than a little excited about how all this turns out.


Tim Corliss said...

Is there a "recipie" or details on the ingredients/process you like any where on the web?

Portland Charcuterie Project said...

I wish I had known you were gathering walnuts, I would have begged to come along and be your "nut boy" in exchange for 60.

anne's tree isn't producing a ton this year, but I know of a tree in my neighborhood... I just need to walk over and introduce myself and ask for his nuts :)

I'm going to mix up 4 batches.. each one a bit different, based on some of the ones I tried at the party.. I'm REALLY looking forward to making one with coffee beans and orange peel.. that one blew me away.

Interested in a charcuterie tasting party soon? I have a bunch of stuff coming ready and want to gather some fans together to eat charcuterie and drink some wine and fennel and limoncello

Vincent Fritzsche said...

Tim, from the article:

"The basic recipe for nocino is simply 30 nuts, a liter of vodka or grain alcohol, a liter of white wine, a kilo of sugar, the rind of a lemon, three cinnamon sticks and 40 whole cloves."

Quarter the walnuts, maybe go 50/50 everclear and vodka, and some people say half the sugar. Depends on how you like it. I'll report on how mine turns out at various sugar levels.

Vincent Fritzsche said...

Todd, I think you're just going to have to sack up and hit that stranger up for his nuts. Be a man about it.

I'm in for a charcuterie tasting. Just let me know.