The nocino is a liqueur that is typical from Emilia-Romagna, the Italian region where I come from. It is made from walnuts (“noci” in Italian); hence the name “nocino”.
The ancient tradition says that it should be made from walnuts collected by barefoot witches (some say, by barefoot virgins) during the night of Saint John (that is, June 24th), stealing them from the trees of some neighbours. None of these prescriptions still survives nowdays, except for the date of June 24th, which is quite accurate: 7-10 days before the 24th, one starts collecting some nuts and checking if they’re ready for the nocino: there should be very little water in them, but at the same time they should be still soft enough in order to be cut in 4. In general the final date it’s June 24th plus or minus a couple of days at most.
You need to prepare the nocino in a big glass carboy (10 liters). All the doses are listed below for such a carboy (which is the typical carboy that you can find in shops in my village).
95 – 130 green walnuts (95 if they are very large, 130 if they are small – with the trees of my garden you need around 120 walnuts)
3,2 kg of white sugar
4 liters of pure alcohol (95%)
1 10 liters glass carboy
a large bowl (it should contain all the walnuts and the sugar, and you should be able to mix everything without problems – see below)
possibly, a wooden barrel (for the aging of the liqueur)
The green walnuts are harvested around June 24th. Around June 16th you have to start collecting 1-2 walnuts per day. You cut them in order to see if they are ready for the preparation. They are ok if they are still soft enough to be cut with a knife, but at the same time they should have very little water inside. Once you cut them, if there are more than a few drops of water, then it is better to wait for some more days.
It’s always better to collect more walnuts than the number listed above: sometimes some nuts are buggy (and you have to discard them), but you realize this only when you cut them. This is the typical situation that happens when you don’t treat the trees with insecticides and similar stuff. Walnuts with small skin defects, however, can be used without problems. The walnut should be prepared immediately after harvesting; at best, you can postpone the preparation of 1 day or 1 day and a half.
Once you harvest the nuts, you put all the sugar in the large bowl. Then you start cutting the walnuts and putting them into the bowl. Each walnut has to be cut into 4 parts (the cuts should be “vertical” with respect to the walnut).
Both the harvesting and the cutting should be done with a pair of kitchen gloves. Otherwise your hands and fingers become black almost immediately. Despite the gloves, however, some color always passes to the fingers (and it remains there for 1-2 weeks, in spite of any product you use in order to clean them).
From time to time, you mix the walnuts and the sugar with a ladle. The walnuts that are already cut should not be exposed directly to the air (otherwise they oxidize), so they should always be covered by some sugar.
When you have cut all the nuts, mix again and wait.
Stir once every hour for 4-5 hours. During this time, wthe walnuts secrete their liquid, hence they melt all the sugar (or, at least, most of it).
Add all the nuts, the liquid and any unmelted sugar in the 10 lites glass carboy. Pour the first liter of alcohol inside the bowl in order to remove the sugar attached to the walls (with the help of a ladle), then pour the mix of alcohol and sugar it into the carboy. Repeat the procedure with the second liter of alcohol.
Then add the third liter of alcohol directly into the carboy and stir well with a wooden spoon. Add the quarter liter of alcohol, mix again and close the cover.
Place outdoors in a spot that is sunny throughout all the day (especially, from noon until evening). Every evening, mix thoroughly for 5-10 minutes with a ladle.
After 40 days (end of July), put the carboy inside the house, in a dark spot. Around December, the liqueur is ready to be removed from the carboy. With the help of a ladle and of a pasta strainer, you strain the liquid in a large bowl. Both the alcohol and the nuts are now very black (this is the same color that gives you problems when you cut them).
The liqueur obtained by pressing the walnuts is held apart from the rest; you only add it partially and gradually to the “first” liquer, until you get a taste you are satisfied with. This depends a lot on the quality of the nuts, on how much water they had, etc.
The liqueur obtained by squeezing is preserved in a bottle. You will use it in order to “correct” the taste in the years when the nuts are not very good. Part of it is also used if you want to age the nocino in the wooden barrels (see below).
The liqueur already mixed is put in large glass bottles (at least, 2 liters). In all the previous passages, you don’t filter the liqueur. Therefore in the bottles you will have some ground of impurities. When you take the liqueur from the bottle, this is not a problem as long as there is enough liquid (provided you do not move the bottle too much). When there is little liqueur in the bottle, it is better to use a metal strainer for filtering impurities.
If you want an even bettern nocino, you can use wooden barrels (oak or linden), where the liqueur has to age for 1 year or 1 year and a half.
Each barrel has to be cleaned and sterilized before use. In particular, new barrels have always lots of wood chips inside, partially still attached to the borders.
In order to clean the barrel, first of all you need to prepare a mixture of boiling water (the same amount of the capacity of the barrel) and salt (10-15% of the weight of the water). Add the boiling mixture to the barrel and wait about 1-2 days (as long as the water does not become cold).
Then you remove the salty water and you rinse the barrel with (white) vinegar. Then you remove the vinegar and you fill the barrel with a mixture of wine and alcohol (95%). This mixture should be left about 1 year in the barrel. This sterilizes the barrel; moreover it allows you to check if there are no leaks from the barrel.
After one year, the wine and alcohol mixture is transferred into a carboy: you can use it in order to sterilize other barrels in the future. At this point the barrel is ready for containing the liqueur. Therefore, you should prepare it at least 6 months before the preparation of the liqueur, let’s say around the beginning of January.
The nocino has to age in the barrel between 1 year and 1 year and a half. Part of the water and of the alcohol in it evaporates, so twice per year you have to remove the cap, and fill it with part of the liqueur obtained by the squeezing.
After the aging, you remove the nocino from the barrel with a barrel pipe. The barrel should never be empty (otherwise the wood can start deforming, hence leaking). Therefore, in a week period you should remove the old nocino, and put the new nocino (that has to age in the barrel). You only leave between half a liter and a liter of the old nocino on the bottom, then you add the new liquer (somehow, you “average” between good years and bad years).
The old nocino is ready to be used or given as a gift to relatives and friends