For many, the piles of corn and stone fruits at the farmers markets are all that's needed to assert that summer has officially arrived. A glance at the calendar tells us that last week was the summer solstice, and planetary orbits are a better marker if you're looking for something concrete and precise. Both suffice as part of an overall countdown, but lack the punch of the arrival of green walnuts for the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist, which was last Sunday, June 24. That is the traditional day for making the blackest of all liqueurs -- nocino -- and has been the DIY kick-off celebration of summer for centuries. Missing it doesn't mean squat -- the window for making it stretches from here to Bastille Day, unless you're a stickler for centuries old Italian tradition. But we're Californians. We improvise.
If you don't have access to your own walnut tree, there are two farmers at the Hollywood market on Sunday who will have green walnuts on hand -- K & K Ranch and Peacock Family Farms. Scott Peacock has been picking these for a handful of customers for a few years now, following their specific harvest instructions as dictated by traditions that reach back to the fourth century.
"You're supposed to pick them on the morning of June 24th," said Peacock. "Which coincides with a special feast day."
He adds that they're still good for nocino making into July, though by then, the nuts have started to form their famously hard shells, making them harder to breach each day that passes. By August, it's a done deal and you have to wait for next year.
Nocino has a history about as dark as its espresso-like self. It was originally a recipe that belonged to the ancient Celts, used to celebrate both the start (making) and the end (drinking) of summer during pagan celebrations. When Christianity was declared the official religion of Rome in 391 CE, the systematic conversion of the Roman Empire included transforming pagan rituals to Christian celebrations. Thus nocino died as a harvest-time inebriant and was reborn as part of a saintly feast day mythos, complete with monk-guarded recipes and miraculous healing properties to drinkers deemed worthy of a sip.
Nocino is a little less elitist and mysterious than it used to be, and is now the favorite of foodcrafters throughout the state. Fitting, since walnut groves stretch from San Diego to Sacramento.
Nocino is so dark and opaque that you can't shine a flashlight through a bottle of it. Freshly decanted from its 40 to 60-day steep, it's biting and pungent, like a fruity espresso with an almost citrusy sweet tang. Allow it to mellow in the bottle and it slowly evolves into a luscious and silky smooth liqueur, heavy with chocolate and coffee notes and taking on an almost port-like quality.
Nuts harvested in June produce a crisper, fruitier flavor while July harvests develop a more tannic taste, allowing you to calendar your recipe day according to your preference. Once decanted, homemade nocino will be drinkable for years, though the subtler flavors begin to diminish significantly in the middle of year two. Though we doubt one batch will make it much past winter.
Note: Nocino can be enjoyed immediately after decanting, though we recommend allowing it to sit for a few months to mellow, just in time for holiday celebrations at the end of the year.
Makes: a little over one liter of liqueur
30 green walnuts, quartered
1 liter of 80 proof neutral spirits (vodka, tequila, grain spirits)
2 1/2 cups sugar
Zest from half a lemon (zest from an orange also works well)
2 cinnamon sticks
1. Wash and quarter the walnuts and place in a 1-gallon, wide mouth glass jar.
2. Add sugar and alcohol and stir until sugar is dissolved.
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3. Add the remaining ingredients and affix the jar's cap.
4. Allow the liqueur to steep between 40 and 60 days, occasionally shaking the contents to encourage extraction. Decant into clean and sanitized glass bottles using either cheesecloth or a coffee filter in the funnel to filter out sediment. Cork and label.
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