As legend tells it, it was the Pictones, an ancient Gallic population, who first began passing around cups of this rich, amber-colored fluid around the fire during the summer nights. What is known for sure is that nocino has French origins – despite the fact that today it is most typically enjoyed and produced around the central Italian city of Modena.
The name nocino derives from the liqueur’s primary ingredient: thenoce, or “walnut”. But not just any old walnut will do: to make a truly authentic nocino, one must use the most widely known variety, the Junglans Regia, and pick them when they are not yet ripe. Tradition dictates that the nuts should be gathered on the “night of San Giovanni”, which falls on the 24th of June – and harvested by hand, one at a time, so as not to damage the shell. Any metal tools may cause the nut to oxidize, which could compromise the final flavor. And how many walnuts does one need? About a kilo, which adds up to about 33-35 walnuts. Tradition also dictates that only an odd-number of nuts should be used.
The next step is to clean them with a damp cloth, and then dry each one carefully. Cut the walnuts into quarters and put them into a large glass jar (which should not have a rubber seal), then add 800 grams of white sugar. Stir well, close the jar and place it in a sunny spot for a couple of days, stirring every so often. After the time is up, pour in a liter of 95 proof alcohol, and then stir again.
At this point, the solution should be moved inside and placed in front of a window that receives light. You should let it sit for at least 60 days, stirring from time to time. When the two months are up, use a clean cheesecloth to filter the liquid into a clean, dark-colored bottle or else small wooden flasks. If you want to store the nocino, it should be done in a dark, cool place. Nocino can be enjoyed right away, but true aficionados will let it sit for a year, so that its flavors can deepen. With a few little tricks and tips, you can improve your final result: try mixing some aromatic herbs in with the alcohol – juniper berries or cloves – but remember to use them in moderation.
Also keep in mind that the steeping time is essential: 60 days is the minimum, but you’ll get a better nocino if you can manage to wait three or four months. The last tip is regarding filtration: use an unbleached, unwashed cheesecloth. If the only one you have has been washed with detergent, rinse and wring it out several times.
If you follow these instructions and take each step carefully, you’ll be rewarded with a marvelous nocino that you can enjoy either over ice… or in a giant goblet worthy of Asterix!