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Making a North American version of Nocino with unripe (green) black walnuts (Juglans Nigra)

 
gardener
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It is a source of perpetual distress to me that I have not found a way to use the prodigious nut production from the black walnut trees in my local environment.  No method that I have attempted or read about for removing the husks and cracking out the nuts returns enough volume of the tiny flavorful nut meats to justify the ridiculous amount of effort and mess involved.  Sure, I can crack out a few handfuls, or enough for a batch of cookies -- but it's too much work for too little return.

I am, however, the complete king of soaking my agricultural surpluses in strong spirits to create flavorful liqueurs. So you can imagine my interest upon discovering that there's an ancient traditional liqueur called "nocino" that's made with green (unripe) English walnuts -- the point being that you harvest them early in the summer before the shells harden up, so you can just wack them into quarters with a cleaver, no husking or shelling necessary.  The entire unripe nut is used, husk and all.  That's an amount of processing I could tolerate.

Instantly I began to wonder if our more strongly flavored black walnuts could be used in the same way.  And hark! The internet says yes.  There's a distillery in Ohio that was buying unripe black walnuts for this in 2019, and  this article cites promising authorities for the notion that it's worth doing:

Faced with the prospect of bushels and bushels of black walnuts, I texted my resourceful friend Toby Cecchini, owner of Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar and author of bartending memoir, Cosmopolitan.  I asked him: “Do you know if I could make nocino out of American black walnuts, of which I have approximately six tons?”

Moments later his response came: “My father made amazing nocino out of American black walnuts every year. I even have his recipe somewhere, though you can basically figure it out yourself: Everclear, sugar, citrus peels, lots of black walnuts when they’re green in the late summer or autumn.”



Reading the article, it sounds like he worked with almost ripe nuts, and pretty much had to chop them up like cordwood.  That's not, I think, the best way; most of the recipes for using unripe English walnuts are very clear about catching them before they harden, so you can cut them in halves and quarters with a knife.  

I found plenty of other sources of people who had used unripe Juglans Nigra to make nocino, too.  Most of them, like this homestead blogger, seem to advocate the traditional practice of picking the nuts when they are so green (unripe) that they can still be quartered with a knife.



There are a lot of different recipes for adding additional spices and flavorings, so I was happy that this person got scientific and made one batch with just the nuts, spirits, and sugar.



Here's their flavor report:

The plain black walnut version created a heady black green liqueur that is simultaneously sweet and bitter, with a pallet stripping side of tannin. It’s kinda like a punch in the face by a nice old Frenchman – sweet and appealingly foreign at first then – wham!  Right in the kisser.  (Also, it stains the hell out of your shirt.)  If you’ve never tried black walnuts, the flavor is way more exotic than standard walnuts.  This liqueur captures the flavor essence perfectly.



To me that sounds like a product that's riding the line between a digestif and a bitters.  I'm fond of strong unusual flavors, so I'm definitely going to try this.  Also, much of the "regular" nocino literature emphases how much the bitter tannins mellow with very long bottle aging, allowing more nut flavor to predominate.  I couldn't find any online accounts by anybody who has been making the black walnut stuff for long enough to report on that, though -- but even a year of aging seems to help a lot:

When we first made nocino we were so disappointed with the initial result that we put the lid back on the big jar and pushed it right back into the corner! A year later we had forgotten about it and realized it was still sitting patiently in the dark. To our delight, it was incredible! So, this year we are making it again. Good things will eventually come to those who are willing to wait.



So, who do we have on Permies who has made the nocino with black walnuts?  Tips and suggestions welcome!
 
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Not quite what you are after but in England we pickle the green walnuts, you can buy them in every supermarket, personally I am not a fan as they are rather soggy and I only like crisp pickled things, but millions obviously do like them. To make them you need soft unripe nuts, since pricking them all over with a pin is recommended.
 
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dunno if i have any tips, but i've made black walnut nocino a couple of times (just missed the window for soft-shell nuts this year so i skipped it). i agree, best/easiest when the shells are still soft enough to cut with a knife. p. baudar has a recipe in his book 'the new wildcrafted cuisine' - since he's in california, he uses the california black walnut (different species), but it's all the same at that ripeness, i imagine.

regarding the labor of processing black walnuts for the nutmeats, i'm a part-owner of a company that processes nuts, and i agree that 'at scale' is the most efficient way to deal with them by far. we're trying to encourage other groups to start regional processing hubs, but there is a fair amount of infrastructure needed to really take it on...i haven't heard of anyone in OK doing it yet. if you're ever driving to or past asheville nc during nut season we could help you feel like walnut meats are more worthwhile.
 
pollinator
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Aging is of top importance! The taste and aroma change *a lot*.

This is our usual schedule (in Z6/7):

- second half of June: pick and soak walnuts (English ones in our case)
- sometime between September and December, as time allows: pour our and filter, keeping just the liquid
- sometime after May next year: consider it OK
- by next Christmas: consider it good
- after 2 years or so: consider it in top form

As I understand it the black walnuts are more flavor-packed than the English ones so it would probably be a good idea to keep the soaking time at 3 months at the very max when working with a full jar.

I normally add a little sugar from the outset because once upon a time I read something about this being helpful with the extraction of flavor. But generally the time when you pour is the time when you try to get a rough idea of how much sugar will be needed considering what you're working with and what the people who it's intended for prefer.

As to the various spices (cloves, orange peel, star anise, coffee beans...), in my experience it's easier to add them after you've poured because some of them are really powerful and only a shorter soaking time is needed. But in the end it's a matter of taste.

In general it has been my experience that all bitter flavors benefit a lot from aging, being overwhelmingly brutal at first and then mellowing to a fine while still very recognizable taste. A jar with brandy and cocoa nibs has been left to soak for a year and a half (by accident mostly :) and produced a great dark-chocolatey flavor.

One more thing, you may notice that while soaking, placing the jar in sunlight - or not - makes a difference. I would guess this influences which components of the walnuts get extracted / remain noticeable. Also, if you plan to re-use your walnuts by soaking them again in fresh alcohol, for us that has been just meh.

This year I was finally able to make a good batch of nocino after 2 years of late frosts which wiped out the walnut crop. However, the nocino is all that we got from a huge walnut tree on our property - as by autumn the ripening walnuts were turned bad by a familiar insect, the walnut husk fly, that did its thing at a grand scale this year in Slovenia :(

 
greg mosser
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interesting. we have a walnut husk fly here as well (and thus walnut husk worms), but i've never seen them do any damage to the actual nut. they're frequently present in quantity in fallen ripe nuts, but they're not able to breach the shell, so the nuts themselves are unaffected. i suppose the thickness of black walnut shell may be working in our favor here!
 
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I don't really drink alcohol, but nocino has always interested me. I have practically unlimited access to walnuts, but I always miss the unripe harvest window.  

I think the walnut trees around here are all grown from seed. Seems like every tree is different - my favourite has very smooth shelled nuts that you can crack in your hands. The shells fall away from whole nuts easily, and the nuts are sweet. The tree right next to it has much harder shelled nuts, with a thick ridge where the two halves meet. Often you need a hammer to get into them, the nuts come out in little pieces with the aid of a nutpick, and have more of the walnut bitterness.

We also have husk fly and it doesn't damage the nut itself.

I'm going to try very hard to make nocino next year. I have my eye on a huge butternut tree I want to try it out on. No black walnuts around.
 
Crt Jakhel
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With the English type walnuts, at least in our locale, the husk fly will severely affect the husk and this usually also results in the kernels being stunted - undeveloped, useless for harvesting. The fly's activity also makes it easier for other nasties to mess things up.

 
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From The Spruce:https://www.thespruceeats.com/making-nocino-walnut-liqueur-2020552

"Nocino is a complex, nutty, and slightly bitter dark-brown liqueur that is usually served as an after-dinner digestivo. Nocino can also be used to “correct” a shot of espresso (espresso with a shot of liquor is called a "caffè corretto," or "corrected coffee"), poured over gelato, mixed into cocktails, or used in place of vanilla extract in baking, especially when making biscotti."

Being a locavore, I love the idea that it can be used in place of vanilla extract. Vanilla orchids are rare here in Cascadia....

A friend gave me some  seeds from a thin-shelled black walnut developed in New York state 5 years ago. They are growing well. Once they start making nuts, I will use some for Nocino, for sure, as my husband is half Italian, and enjoys making all kinds of extracts like this. Yay!
Staff note (Dan Boone):

Clickable link: Making Nocino Walnut Liqueur via The Spruce

 
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