Last night it was raining in Los Angeles - such a rare occasion and one that befitted staying inside, getting cozy, watching a movie (“The Trip to Italy,” worth it for the scenery alone!) and sipping on some of our family’s homemade nocino.
When we were living in Bologna we first became acquainted with nocino, the Italian digestif. Ok, maybe infatuated is a better way to describe it. This sticky, dark liquor is served after dinner in Emilia-Romagna and there are as many ways to make it as there are families in the region.
Traditionally, nocino is made on June 24th, which is the feast day of San Giovanni (St. John the Baptist) and right around the summer solstice. It is then left outside to steep until Christmas (6 months) when it is decanted and consumed or stored to age further. The most important and somewhat difficult ingredient to procure is the green walnut – that is, the walnut as we know it when it has not fully ripened.
The whole green walnuts are cut in half and placed in a large jar with alcohol, sugar and (depending on the recipe) spices. The bottles are stored outside in the rain, snow, or - in our case - hot California days for 6 months and are stirred about once a week with a large wooden spoon. It’s magical watching the clear liquid first become pale green and then a muddy, dark black.
We always decant ours around Christmas and then let a majority of it continue to age for as long as we can resist drinking it. This year, we’re going to try and make it to seven months! Just kidding, we always make sure to store some for at least a year as it mellows out and becomes even more syrupy and smooth the longer you let it rest.
Nocino is consumed as a digestif, in theory to aid digestion (or if you’re like our friend Jeni, it aids falling asleep ten minutes later). If you have never tasted nocino, the bitter-sweet tang and high alcohol content is reminiscent of an amaro (which is actually Italian for “bitter”). The unripe walnuts give it an earthy and aromatic flavor that is perfect to sip neat after a big meal on a cold night.
You can find nocino at specialty liquor stores or if you’re feeling adventurous next summer, try and make some of your own. Legend has it that barefoot virgins should harvest the nuts but in case you don’t have any of those around to help, you can usually find green walnuts at your local farmer’s market in the early part of June.