When I was young conker trees used to be my favourite but as I am now older and wiser elder and walnut trees probably tie for first place as you can make booze from them. Walnuts come from a tree with many names “Common Walnut,” “Persian Walnut” or “English Walnut” which are all the same and in Britain there is the even rarer Black Walnut tree imported from America. Last year I started a walnut leaf wine that promises to be not only unique but far better than my oak leaf wine I have previously made. The leaf can also be used in bitters and liqueurs.
Best of all the young fresh nuts can be used to make an assortment of liqueurs too. The French make Vine De Noix with a red wine base and also created nocino that has travelled to Italy to be perfected into its own regional variation. Nocino is part of a larger family of liqueurs that use a spirit rather than wine to infuse the walnuts. Similar drinks can be found with walnut Ratafia from Spain, or Crotian Orahovac that is brandy based, some recipes even use rum. Both common and black nuts can be used to make Nocino but the Black Walnut is probably too tough to pickle and eat – I have only ever seen them off limits to foragers in parks anyway.
With its neutral base of vodka Nocino has an unmistacably rich warm walnut taste with a hint of rounded spices and zest. Cloves are sometimes used but I prefer to use allspice that pairs better with the walnut and vanilla and moves it away from the more mulled wine style spice mix. The nuts give a rich first run, then they are recycled for a lighter second run both in taste and colour, then the almost spent nuts can be crushed into a chutney maximising their use.
British green walnuts are generally in season in late June and maybe into July if you can find trees to forage or a specialist farm to get them freshly picked, packed and delivered. I foraged half of mine and picked them around the 20th of June though the traditional day to harvest is the 24th – St John’s Day. The other half were bought mail order though some Turkish supermarkets do get them occasionally. If foraging keep an eye on the growing nuts and occasionally pick one and slice open. The nut inside should be distinctive but with no hard shell forming inside. To do that you will need to find a walnut tree so look out for a stout tree with small trunk with sets of long symmetric leaves in sets of about eight with a single leaf on the end. The leaves have a distinctive nail varnish aroma when rubbed.
1 Litre of 50% ABV vodka
30 green walnuts
1/2 vanilla pod
zest of 1 lemon
4 all spice berries
1/3 of a cinnamon stick
First of all cover everything. Walnuts used to be used as a dye and they will stain everything – Fingers, benches, clothing, the cat, antique flooring and partners. Use rubber gloves if you can.
Wash a two litre kilner jar then chop the walnuts into quarters and throw them in. Add the vanilla pod, all spice (no need to crack or grind) cinnamon and the lemon zest as long strips. Pour over the vodka and then seal the lid.
Leave for eight to ten weeks giving an occasional shake to disperse the flavour and aid the slight oxidation needed to darken the liqueur.
After the eight weeks pour through muslin to separate the solids from the vodka. Sweeten the nocino with a simple syrup. To make this gently heat the water and sugar with a squeeze of lemon juice and stir for 10 minutes on the gentlest of simmers. Leave to cool and then add two thirds and stir in. Taste and add more if you want to sweeten further.
Seal the nocino and leave it to age until December when it can be decanted into bottles. Coffee filters and a funnel can remove much of the tannin that settles in this time.
This will keep indefinitely due to the high alcohol content though it mellows creating a more subtle flavour as time progresses.
SECOND RUN NOCINO
1-ish Litre of 50% ABV vodka
the 30 green walnuts used earlier
1/2 vanilla pod
zest of 1 lemon
4 all spice berries
1/3 of a cinnamon stick
Simply repeat the process but only use enough vodka to cover the walnuts this time. When it is time to sweeten use less of the simple syrup initially as there is less bitterness to match with sweetness.
The second run nocino is lighter than the initial one made but the flavour is subtly different. The walnuts have naturally lost a lot of flavour so the second run is not as dark or so powerfully nutty and as such needs only enough vodka to cover the nuts. I chose to remove the old spices and zest and replace with a new ones to give a fruitier punch which Ms Gazette prefers to the dark almost treacle like first run, other people simply reuse all the ingredients.
DRUNKEN WALNUT CHUTNEY
Originating in India chutney was morphed by the British into a preserve used to keep fruit for the lean winter months. It may look unappetising but it is a rich thick spiced sweet “jam” that can be paired with all kinds of cheese or used in sandwiches. There are hundreds of recipes and it is infinitely malleable to your own tastes. Generally the rule is that 1kg of fruit and vegetables should be mixed with 300g of sugar and 300ml of vinegar. The fruit and vegetables give the flavour and texture, the vinegar preserves the fruit and the sugar also preserves and counters the sourness. My recipe already has the spices present from the nocino maceration and preserving power of the alcohol so it has relatively little spice added.
The 30 green walnuts used earlier
2 red onions
zest of half an orange
1 inch of ginger
½ tsp ground corriander
300g light brown sugar
350ml cider vinegar
Use a blender to mince the green walnuts into a small chunks and add them to a thick, heavy bottomed pan. Add all the ingredients with the onion diced as thinly as possible, the apple and pear pealed cored and diced similarly. Stir the sugar and vinegar through until it dissolves and then start to heat the ingredients.
Once the vinegar starts to simmer adjust the heat to keep it at this temperature and stir every couple of minutes to turn the solids. The heat should allow a light simmer which will reduce and pulp the apple and perhaps pear. The mixture will reduce as the vinegar penetrates the fruit and vegetables to preserve them over the course of an hour.
Five or six jam jars and lids should be boil sterilised for 10 minutes to store the chutney. I find placing the jars submerged in a pan of cold water and bringing it to a boil 30 minutes into making the chutney is best.
In the closing minutes reduce the heat and stir more often so that the thickening mixture does not stick or burn. When there is no free running liquid and the mix is nicely bound remove from the heat and ladle into the boil sterilised jam jars. The chutney will cool and contract the lids to form an airtight seal.
Leave for the flavours to merge for 3 months and then serve as an accompaniment to a well earned cheese board. Once a jar is opened it will keep in the fridge indefinitely. A sealed jar can live happily on a shelf for 18 months of more.
If you have spare walnuts after starting the Nocino they can be pickled for another potent accompaniment to cheese.
500ml malt vinegar
250g light brown sugar
½ tsp allspice
½ tsp cloves
¼ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp whole peppercorns
½ tsp fresh ginger
1 garlic clove
Just like using walnuts anywhere else. Cover all work surfaces and use gloves if you can. The juice stains giving you tramp fingers.
Give the walnuts a rinse and remove any remaining stems. Prick with a fork and drop into a glass bowl. Use half the salt to make a brine that will cover the walnuts and then leave covered with cling film for a week in a cool dark place. After a week pour the dirty water away and then cover again with a newly prepared brine and leave for another week. (The walnuts may turn black – this is normal and not a bad sign.)
Pour the brine away and rinse the excess off. Cut the walnuts into thick slices and leave on a tray to dry for a few days – they will certainly blacken now but the salt will have preserved them.
Pop the walnuts in a heave pan with the spices and vinegar and get to a low simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes. Ladle into cleaned jam jars (jar and lid boiled for 10 minutes) and cover with the vinegar mixture. Close lips tightly and then leave at least three or even better six months before eating with a luxurious cheese board.
The very excellent Urban Huntress: https://urbanhuntress.com/2013/07/27/foraging-green-walnuts-2/