It’s the evening of the 24 June and I am standing under our walnut tree looking at the green walnuts, counting to see if there are 23 at a reachable height. I’m deciding whether to make Nocino, the sticky, brown sweet liqueur and today, being the day of St John (The Baptist), is the only day I can pick these fruits if I am to stick to the legend. However there are certain elements of the legend that I am ignoring … for instance I have a metal step ladder not a wooden ladder in which to reach the slightly higher branches, and I am not a ‘virgin in search of a husband’, having already acquired said husband to help me with the higher walnut gathering whilst I rummage around the lower leaves searching for the green fruits.
Nocino is a 40% walnut liqueur which can only be made with walnuts picked from a tree, as they can’t be bought in this fresh state. However this year, after a warm March and then a freezing cold April, a lot of the walnut trees in our area were damaged by the hard frost so there might be a shortage of green walnuts to make this syrupy tipple. We are very lucky in our little valley that the hard frost didn’t cause too much damage so our walnuts are abundant. Maybe I should set up a little stall at the bottom of our driveway selling bags of 23 green walnuts to passers-by. Although that’ll mean Giorgio our local farmer, a couple of Dutch tourists who’ve got lost and drive past … twice … and Daniella on her bike from the next valley … not the biggest client base with which to start a business!
The recipe is easy. Once picked I need to wash the fruits (the nuts are still soft and forming on the inside and this can be checked with the insertion of a sharp knife to ensure there is no hardening in the middle) and then cut them into quarters. Latex gloves are essential for this job as despite the creamy white flesh inside, the clear sap released from the fruit will quickly turn my hands dark brown and I’ll spend the rest of the weekend trying to remove it with lemon juice and a lot of scrubbing.
The 23 quartered fruits are then put into a large jar with 4 cloves, 1 cinnamon stick and strips of zest from a fresh lemon, peeled with a vegetable peeler, before the whole lot is covered with 1 litre of 90o alcohol. It is then sealed and left to sit in a sunny spot and shaken from time to time to keep the ingredients well mixed. Within a week or two the light green liquid will have changed to dark brown.
On the 1 November, All Saints’ Day, I then need to prepare a sugar syrup with 200ml water and 500g sugar. After filtering off the solid contents of the jar, the remaining liquid has the sugar syrup added to it and the resulting mix can then be bottled into dark glass bottles to be stored in the cantina until Christmas. Not only do they make ideal Christmas presents but the liqueur is said to be very warming as you drink it, so is an ideal back up if our wood-burning stufa doesn’t work as well as we hope!
As I’ve never actually tasted this liqueur, I’m not sure whether I even like it. However you can buy it in the shops for around 6 euros a bottle (sometimes a very tacky looking walnut shaped bottle!) but considering it sits on the shelf next to the 90o pure alcohol which is over double the price at 13 euros a bottle I have a small dilemma. Maths was never my strong point but you see my hesitation – I’m a Yorkshire lass so looking after the pennies cents is part of my DNA!
However, if I do decide to make it, there is a bonus element to the whole process. The fruits that are filtered from the dark liquid at the beginning of November can be used as a wood stain (those latex gloves are sounding like a really good idea now aren’t they?) Just dip a cloth into the squeezed nut remains and wipe it over light wood to create a dark finish. Ronseal may have the monopoly on ‘It does exactly what it says on the tin’ but they do not claim that you can enjoy the sticky syrup poured over vanilla ice-cream afterwards!
Not the best argument, but good enough … Now if you’ll excuse me … I have 23 walnuts to pick!