Note: Earlier this month, Saveur magazine published my short piece about nocino, the Italian liqueur made from underipe or "green" walnuts. Here's the back story:
It is June 24, 2006, in Umbria and Giancarlo Giubilaro has invited me to help make nocino, the green-walnut infused liqueur that is traditionally made in Italy at the beginning of the Feast of St. John the Baptiste. I am staying at the Civitelli Ranieri Center where my husband, the poet David Lehman, and several other artists, writers, and composers from around the world are enjoying six blissful weeks of free time while cosseted in this fifteenth century hilltop castle. As David’s wife, I am welcome to stay for three weeks.
The nearest village is Umbertide, the nearest town, Perugia. During outings to Perugia, and Assissi, Gubio and Bevagna, I'm reminded of writer Kate Simon's observation that the high hill towns of Umbria "dare one to invade their secret places — virgin princesses sequestered in towers."
To say it is paradise would overstate the case but not by much. Fig and cherry trees line the gravel path near our apartment just outside the castle walls. We have more living space here than we do at home in New York City. David has already appropriated the lone hammock that hangs between two trees near the painters’ studios for his afternoon reading and nap. It's only later that we discover that the hammock is part of an art instillation made by a previous visiting artist.
I like taking long walks, sometimes to the village of Umbertide, where I browse the market stalls and treat myself to a porchetta sandwich or an espresso or gelato. The sun is hot, the sky is blue. This may be the part of the world that inspired Henry James to remark that “summer afternoon” is the most beautiful phrase in the English language.
Giancarlo is the operations manager here, a shy man who becomes animated when talk turns to food and cooking. After dinner on our second night Giancarlo placed an assortment of digestifs on the table – Grappa, Limoncello, Amaro, and a dark liquid in a carafe, the nocino he made last year. It was a syrupy brew with flavors of nuts and spices and the pleasing after-burn one looks for in a good digestivo. I had one small glass, then another. It seemed prudent to stop after two, but when Giancarlo announced that he would be making more this very week, I asked if I could observe. He went one better and said I could help.
We meet outside the small kitchen from which has issued a parade of regional dishes that has far surpassed my expectations, high though they were. Romana Ciubini, the head cook, prepares them with two assistants, both named Patrizia. Romana, a Tuscan native, cooks for the Civitella residents from spring through fall. With her tattoos and changing wardrobe of chandelier earrings, she bears no resemblance to the stereotype of the Italian cook who learned her trade at mama’s elbow. She is well traveled and highly skilled in the kitchen. (Several years ago she came to the States for an apprenticeship with acclaimed chef Dan Barber at his Blue Hills at Stone Barns restaurant.) I’m told that later in the summer she’ll make Limoncello, another digestif, but only when she can get the superior lemons from Sorrento. Although I consider myself well-versed in many cuisines, I’ve already tasted several local products and preparations that are new to me, thanks to Romana.
After dinner, Lynne Yamamota, a visual artist from Amherst, Massachusetts, and I interrogate Romana to find out how she’s prepared one dish or another. I’m determined to duplicate some of them in my own kitchen. I write everything down with the translation help of Mauro Lanza, a young composer from Paris by way of Venice who is one of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic gourmands I have met.
The scent of jasmine is in the air when Giancarlo and I negotiate the rocky slope to castle orchard. It is a lovely June morning. The medieval castle against a sky unbroken by clouds looks less unreal with each passing day. After collecting a basketful of under-ripe walnuts, Giancarlo establishes our workspace on the table in the gazebo where we eat our dinners. It sits under a canopy of honeysuckle in full flower. The background noise is courtesy of bees getting drunk on their sap punctuated by the occasional distant cry of the resident peacock and the musical voices of Romana and the two Patrizias as they prepare our lunches.
Giancarlo tests the walnuts for the proper degree of softness. He explains that they must be soft enough to pierce with a pin and according to lore, damp with morning dew. They remind me of key-limes with their pale bumpy surfaces. With his OK, we proceed to quarter roughly twenty-five and place them in a large wide-mouthed jar. When we’re through, he instructs me to wash my hands quickly or the walnuts will stain them black. My already-tinted fingernails prove the point. Next we add some sliced lemons to the walnuts along with a few sticks of cinnamon and some cloves. Giancarlo empties two-and-one-half liters of 95-proof grain alcohol and a couple of cups of sugar into the jar with the cut fruit. He agitates the jar so as to combine everything. He screws a cap on the jar. Finished. “Now we wait,” he says. I am disappointed that my culinary adventure is over so quickly.
Every morning for the next forty, Giancarlo will place the jar outdoors to sit in the sun. Every evening he will bring it inside. Giancarlo explains that the only significance of the forty-day wait is that this is the amount of time necessary for the alcohol to extract the flavors from the fruit. At the end of this period, he will strain the liquid and discard the solids. In a twist on tradition, Giancarlo adds between one and two bottles of white wine instead of the usual water to his liqueur, which he believes adds sweetness and depth to the finished product. Once strained, diluted with wine, and bottled, the nocino will age for six to nine months before it is ready for drinking. I like imagining the faces of a new crop of resident artists enjoying the mysterious flavors as twilight falls and – to quote Henry James again – all frowns expire “in the teeming softness of the great vale of Umbria.“
In the years since my stay at Civitella, I've experimented with making nocino at home, thanks to walnuts shipped to me by Laura Orem from rural Pennsylvania and to a recipe translated from the Italian by Moira Egan and Damiano Abeni. I age my nocino for at least a year in a small oak barrel. Last year's batch will be ready for drinking soon. I can hardly wait.
To find out about commercially available nocino, go here.