Nocino is a digestif from my home region of Emilia Romagna. It falls into the rather loose category of ‘Amari.’ These are strong liquors that are normally herb, root, or in this case nut-based and are Italy’s version of pro-biotics. Think of them as Yakult for grown-ups. Normally ‘enjoyed’ after dinner their principal purpose is to settle your organs after a heavy meal, with a secondary function of being reasonably passable to drink. Although Amaro means Bitter, they range on the bitterness index from gut-wrenching (Fernet Branca) to tooth decaying (Amaro Montenegro). Backcountry European hunters and University students will no doubt be familiar with the most ubiquitous of Amari in ‘Jägermeister’ (translated as ‘hunt master’ from the German) with the now famous logo depicting the conversion of the patron saint of hunters, St. Hubert.
Born in France in the 7th century, St Hubertus was a passionate huntsman. After the death of his wife and son during childbirth, he retreated to the forest of Ardennes in contemplative solitude. One Good Friday morning, he aimed true on a stag and before releasing the arrow, was struck by a vision of a shining crucifix in between the antlers. As he kneeled in veneration the deer is said to have laid down the unwritten laws of modern hunting and fair chase to the poor soul. The stag scolded Hubertus for killing for sport and lectured him into holding his quarry in higher esteem. From now on true reverence must be shown to the animal and the hunter can only take a life when a clean kill is assured. An honorable huntsman will always renounce the chance to shoot a trophy animal, preferring instead to cull an older deer passed his breeding years. Additionally one must never shoot a doe in the early months after childbirth so as the ensure that the young are never orphaned.
I think about this story often when drinking my nocino, often daydreaming that the same stag would show up today in the middle of an 800 bird day and give all the corporate guns bloody good hiding.
In rural Italy, most make their own amaro in house and everyone will have their secret ‘recipe’. Nobody seems to know the exact ingredients or the ABV & it’s still considered the preferred drink of gruff outdoorsmen. Truth be told it’s normally pretty dangerous stuff, when rabbit hunting with Italians, it’s not uncommon to see a flask being hurled up and down the shooting line until everyone’s boots have been shot to ribbons.
This Nocino however is the Bentley of the Amaro world. The process is a simple one involving little more than green walnuts, a few spices, and a bottle of 96% alcohol. In respect to St Hubertus and hunting to a higher ordinate principle, the process is undertaken on the most important religious days of the seasons.
Don’t bother making it with supermarket vodka. It’s a waste of time and it will taste rotten. The below recipe is superior to anything else I’ve tried and believe me I’ve tried a lot of Nocino in my life. It’s simple, traditional and most importantly is delicious. I would love to tell you that it was handed down in secret to me by my grandfather, but frankly, his Nocino was so brutal, that even the town drunk wouldn’t touch it. Sorry Nonno, this one is mine.
25 green unripe walnuts.
1 liter of 96% of food-grade alcohol. Please God don’t get cheap rubbing alcohol or anything on Bulgarian eBay. I will not be held liable if you go blind through your own penny-pinching. 96% is as pure as you will find it. In continental Europe, you will readily find it on every supermarket shelf under different monikers. Nocino can only be made once a year, so wait until you get your hands on something that won’t kill you.
6 Cloves. Don’t be tempted to add more- you’re making a macho drink, not Christmas cake.
The peel of half a lemon. Make sure you buy unwaxed lemons and give them a good wash first.
15cms of cinnamon sticks. My Nonno and I would pretend these were cigarettes when I made Nocino with him as a child. Like hell, I’m doing that with my kids today.
400ml of still mineral water.
Half a kilo of caster sugar.
Some friendly Advice- Wear gloves and make this in the man cave. Walnut juice runs clear, but will permanently stain everything black including and especially your wife’s farrow and ball kitchen walls.
Traditionally in Emilia, the nuts are harvested on June 24th, on the day of St John, however, in England I have to wait a little longer until they are ready. Normally the 1st week of July is when I climb the walnut tree at the bottom of my garden, showing off to my kids and tempting fate with each branch.
Sterilise a large Kilner/glass jar with a sealable rubber lid. A hot wash on the dishwasher should do just fine
Pour the alcohol into the jar. Are you wearing your gloves and in your cave? Good. Wash and quarter the walnuts and drop them in the booze.
Add the cinnamon sticks, lemon zest, and cloves.
Close the jar and leave it outside in the garden in a warm sunny place until the feast day of the Assumption of Mary ( August 15th.) Every now and then, give it a good shake and deep sniff. The bouquet should be ruthless enough to make your liver quiver.
Once the waiting is up, gently heat the caster sugar and mineral water in a pan until it dissolves fully. Leave to cool.
Strain the alcohol through a small sieve and add the sugar solution to dilute the Nocino to a respectable 40% mark. Bottle and leave in a cool dark place until Christmas Eve dinner.
Enjoy straight up, reaffirming your dedication to fair chase hunting.