I have great affinity for all things walnut. When I was a “wee” one, my great grandparents had acres of orchards, which included both walnut and hazelnut (better known to me at the time as filberts) groves. I looked forward with great anticipation to visiting Great Granny every fall for bags full of the delicious nuts. I would diligently crack the hard shells and release the wonderful nutty meats right alongside my mother. Granny’s walnuts would be in the holiday fudge, brownies and if my parents were so inclined, a sheet tray of their amazing baklava… Now as an adult, I am blessed with five enormous English walnuts and two black walnuts in the yard surrounding my century old farm house. The fall harvest is always eagerly anticipated, but my walnut love runs deep… I have found that making vin de noix (walnut wine, essentially) and pickled English walnuts allows me to explore the depth and breadth of my walnut affection.
Both recipes utilize the green, unripe walnuts harvested in early to mid summer (in my part of the world), well before the hard inner shell has developed. This year my English walnut trees are so burdened with their load that many limbs hang heavily to the ground. Makes for easy picking!!! Even if I were not so blessed to have these beauties out my back door, our valley is brimming with both trees. There is a road not so far away called Walnut Hill (aptly named) and black walnuts grow with such vigor some dare to call them a “weedy” tree. Below I have provided pictures of the leaf and unripe nut to help identify each variety.
So what is vin de noix, nocino or walnut wine you ask? “Amazing” is just about my only response. A combination of walnuts, white wine, spirits and spices that are steeped together for months before decanting and sweetening. During the restful soak in booze, the walnuts offer their oils and juices, slowly turning the liquid a deep dark brown.
Rich and luxurious, this spirited wine is perfect after dinner cocktail or a snuggling in front of the fire with a good book… This vin de noix/nocino/walnut wine recipe is a bit of an amalgamation of different recipes that I have observed. I choose spices to my own liking, I use a combination of both English and black walnuts, I sweeten after the wine has developed the flavors and depth I prefer, and I select to only use the zest of an orange rather that whole slices as called for in some recipes as I feel the citrus pith imparts more bitterness that I personally like in an already tannin rich, appropriately bittersweet drink. My recipe is merely a suggestion and a reflection of my preferences, so feel free to toy with proportions and flavors. Perhaps the result isn’t “traditional”, but new traditions have to start somewhere!
And the pickled English walnuts? Morsels of earthy, salty, otherworldly goodness. Brined, sliced and pickled, these walnuts take on a deep, almost “Worcestershire” flavor. Serve on a cheese tray next to a Stilton or other blue – you may be well on the path to culinary perfection. I also like to serve them in rustic roast beef sandwiches on a hearty country loaf with a good English cheddar or Irish Dubliner – seems like a perfect fall lunch for apple picking, no? This recipe is adapted from Hank Shaw over at Honest Food. If you don’t follow him, you should. He is awesome and inspiring…
A few notes on working with green, unripe walnuts. They will stain. Everything. Your hands, the cutting board, the sink, your dish towels – you get the point? They exude a bright yellow juice that soon oxidize to a dark brown. So, like don’t wear white when preparing these recipes and grab some gloves if you want to preserve your manicure. Thankfully, 90% of my clothes are brown, navy or olive in color (or already stained and otherwise ruined) and my “manicure” consists of making sure only a minimal amount of dirt is visible under my short, trimmed nails. I am kinda made for this walnut gig…
Perhaps I should note too that walnuts have some wonderful health benefits. Walnuts (Juglans regia and nigra –English and black, respectively) are antifungal and anti parasitic as well as being plentiful in vitamins and minerals.
- English, black or a combination thereof, halved or quartered
- 1 bottle dry white wine (inexpensive chardonnay is excellent here)
- Brandy or vodka
- 6 cinnamon sticks
- 2 tablespoons whole clove
- 2 star anise pods
- Zest of one orange
- In a sterile half gallon jar, place halved and quartered walnuts, spices, zest and wine. Add brandy or vodka to fill the remaining space in the jar. Wine and liquor proportion should be approximately 2/3 wine to 1/3 liquor.
- Allow to steep for 2-8 months, depending on your preference, until the wine is a deep dark brown and aromatic.
- Strain through muslin. Sweeten with honey to taste. Bottle and allow to rest for a few weeks, giving time for the flavors to meld.
- Serve in small wine or cordial glasses.
Pickled English Walnuts
- About 50 unripe green English walnuts
- 1/2 sea salt
- 1/2 spring water
- gallon half apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon coarsely cracked black pepper
- 1 tablespoon coarsely cracked allspice berries
- 1 tablespoon coarsely crush cloves
- 1 cups dark brown sugar
Pierce each walnut 4-6 times with the tines of a fork and place in a gallon size glass jar.
Meanwhile prepare the brine solution by bringing the half gallon of water to a boil, add salt and dissolve. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
After brine has cooled, pour over pierced walnuts. Place lid on jar and allow to brine for 7-10 days, "burping" the jar once a day to relieve any pressure.
After brining is complete, drain brine and slice each walnut into 1/3" thick rounds. Place on a lined baking sheet and allow to oxidize for 6-8 hours until the walnuts darken slightly. It is advisable to wear gloves for the slicing.
Gather remaining ingredients and and sliced walnuts and bring to gentle simmer in a large stock pot for about 10 minutes.
Pack walnuts and liquid into sterilized half pint jars leaving a 1/2" head space and screw on rings and lids finger tight. Process in a water bath canner for 10 minutes. Remove from canner and allow to cool undisturbed.
Check for seal and loosen ring (or remove). Store in a cool dark pantry for up to a year.