DD started his first-ever Nocino a year ago, when his coworker Craig brought in some green walnuts from his neighbourhood up in Sonoma. Over the year, the jar of walnut-steeped alcohol had sat in their offices in Silicon Valley, turning from chartreuse green to nearly black. Using David Lebovitz's recipe as a guide, but staggering the order in which he added the sweeteners, DD strained after a month, and added sugar after about 4 months. He finally bottled the stuff 2 weeks ago, nearly a whole year after first soaking the unripe walnuts in vodka. It was absolutely delicious. Nutty, not too terribly boozy. In comparison we drank a bit of the Nocino della Christina we had picked up from Napa a while back - the Napa Nocino tasted a little more alcoholic, astringent, with a different spice profile. Ours (which I preferred) was more mellow, laid back, almost chill.
It tasted like it would go really well as a sauce on some ice cream or other dessert and we were definitely eager to start another, larger batch. Last year's was so small it filled three 375-ml bottles, which DD had to split with his coworkers.
This past weekend, we drove up to Calaveras County (yes, of jumping frog fame) to go camping with a great group of folks up in Angels Camp. As we headed west on the 4, driving through San Joaquin County, we noticed the miles upon miles of farmland, ranches and orchards and strained our eyes to wonder whether some of the trees may be bearing some intriguing-looking green fruit. On the way home, we stopped at a roadside stand stationed at intersection of the 4 and Farmington Road. It's one of the few stops on the 4 and also boasted a jerky kiosk selling exotic meats: alligator, ostrich, venison. Hopping out of the car we pointed to the trees and asked the vendors - "Are these walnut trees?" The cherry sellers nodded in assent - they were.
And thus began a detour from our way back home to San Francisco... We drove through parts of San Joaquin County stopping every few miles to accost some individual who was visible from the road. We were in search of green walnuts, see, and they were quite literally all around us! I could have so easily plucked a couple near that roadside stand - so low and close were the branches, so tempting and round were the lime-lookalikes. But we wanted to do this correctly and sought to obtain proper permission and offer payment.
It was more difficult than we expected. The first farmer whose orchard we drove up to flat-out refused. "No one buys green walnuts," he intoned. Another family who was out in the yard holding a garage sale indicated that they were prohibited from picking any walnuts and didn't have the contact information for their landlord.
We finally lucked out at in Linden at the local Rinaldi's - a grocery store with a Chinese take-out counter and Safeway commercials playing over the loudspeaker. There, a kind employee recommended we drive up Duncan Street and look for a pistachio-green house on the right. "Ask for Kenny or his older brother," were his directions.
We found the house, and thanks to its inhabitants ended up spending a pleasant half-hour picking our own walnuts and managing to fill a grocery bag for the amazing price of $20. Plucking the fuzzy green fruit was not as difficult as I expected, and even I was able to reach many of the lower hanging branches, pulling them to me if they were just a tad out of range.
Walnuts are notorious for exuding a juice that oxidizes very rapidly and quickly stains anything it comes into contact with. Though our hands did get sticky during the picking, we managed not to get too covered with the staining liquid. Before getting into the car, a quick rinse with some bottled water helped tremendously.
Our kitchen scale was on the fritz, but we managed to estimate that we had picked some 20 lbs of walnuts or so, in varying sizes. The bag had filled our car with a distinct nocino-like aroma, nutty and herbaceous.
The ratio of alcohol to walnuts is not quite exact - most, if not all the recipes called for a number of walnuts (despite the fact that we had varied greatly in size), rather than a specific weight - e.g., 30 walnuts to 1 litre of alcohol. DD and I managed to make 8 litres of this stuff, using 240 walnuts total, with around 3 or so lbs left over for other uses. Once the jars were filled we added spices: orange and lemon peel, cloves and cinammon sticks, Madagascar vanilla bean. In another month or two we'll strain out the solids, wait, then add in the sugar perhaps around October. Then we'll wait some more. And hope that this latest experiment is as successful as the first.
Here's a cross-section look at one of the nuts - it's a little crazy to think that these will soon form hard outer casings around an internal nut-meat, already starting to form. Also note that the general recommendation is to pick nuts that are still soft enough to let a large needle through somewhat easily, and this will vary depending on when and where you're picking in California. In San Joaquin County, it seems that mid-June is just right. DD's coworker, who provided us with the initial batch of nuts, mentioned that noix vertes in Sonoma were still tiny - the size of his fingernail - and guesstimated that they would not be ready until sometime in July. (He had harvested the 2010 batch on Independence Day.) In France and Italy, it seems that these are commonly picked on or after the 24th of June.
The walnuts will exude this gorgeous chartreusy-greeny-yellow liquid and colour the alcohol accordingly. You'll see it staining the chopping board above in the photo showing a cross-section of the walnut.
Some 14 or so of the smaller walnuts went into my first attempt at a Vin de Noix. I wanted to make only a small batch, and and adapted from this William Rubel recipe:
Vin de Noix
- 14 smallish noix vertes or 8 large green walnuts
- 2 750-ml bottles of red wine (we used a Ravenswood Merlot)
- 150 ml of vodka
- 1.2 cups sugar
- zest of 1/2 orange
- 1/4 vanilla bean
- 3 cloves
- 1 star anise
Procedure: Quarter your walnuts and place them into a large nonreactive container - a glass jar - with the next 7 ingredients. Store in a cool, dark place and stir or shake occasionally. After 6-8 weeks, strain the liquid using cheesecloth and taste for sweetness, adding more sugar if you desire. Bottle the strained vin de noix and let it further age for about a year or so.
*Note: that walnuts, alcohol and sugar are the minimum ingredients for this fortified wine; the spices are optional. I've also seen a very intriguing variation that calls for maple syrup and szechuan peppercorn - I'll save that recipe for another future batch.
Sources for Green Walnuts
- Online from Haag Farm (limited time in June only)
- Hoffman Farms, per Married with Dinner
- Somewhere in Linden, CA, per my account above.
Yesterday, we found walnuts due to a combination of serendipity (being at the right place at the right time) and dogged tenacity. If DD hadn't been so willing to ask questions from several random strangers, we probably would have made the trip back from walnut country empty-handed. But a little additional luck and a large amount of generous goodwill from some wonderful individuals yielded a magnificent bounty yesterday, which we can't wait to taste in about a year or so...
Next up: thinking of the possibilities of making pickled green walnuts!