I first tasted Vin de Noix, green walnut wine, in a small restaurant in the Paris neighborhood Le Marais. I’ve never found the restaurant again, no matter how many narrow streets I turn down, but the taste of Vin de Noix never left me.
When, several years later, I found the recipe in a small preserving book written in French on yellowed pages I did not expect several more years to pass before I could finally make it.
The recipe calls for green walnuts, not a variety of walnut, but the immature nut. To make vin de noix, according to this recipe, the green nuts are picked on Fête de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste, June 24. Nocino is the very delicious Italian version of vin de noix, and those recipes call for the nuts to be picked around the same time. A recent peek at a Bulgarian preserving book speaks of sweet and savory applications for green walnuts and calls for the same picking date. FRIENDS, THE TIME IS NOW. The goal is to gather the nut when the outer shell has not yet formed, but the nut has begun to form and is still a bit gelatinous. When, as the book says, “A needle will pass through the nut without resistance.”
For many years I spent fall weekends at farmers markets, seeking locally grown black walnuts, the ones that are so delicious in a Thanksgiving pie or stuffing. About 12 years ago, I spotted them and struck up a conversation with Suzanne Behling (Nob Hill Orchards), who told me the immature walnuts that fell from the tree in the early summer were an annoying ankle turning nightmare. I offered to turn those nuggets into booze. The following spring, we discussed it again. And she brought me a huge paper sack full of green walnuts.
They smell like Christmas. Clove and cinnamon and mace. They’re slightly sticky. I’ve made vin de noix or nocino every couple of years since then. It’s ready in early December, ready to become a memorable hostess gifts.
Suzanne has retired and my supplies were dwindling. I thought about driving several hours to a place I knew I could get walnuts, but then Domenica Marchetti came to the rescue. Not only did she have some walnuts for me, she was up for a swap – nocino for vin de noix.
Domenica has a superb new book out on Italian preserves. I love the section on oil curing and the agrodulces and can’t wait to make, well, absolutely everything. I’ve got her sour cherry recipe in my sites and will be reporting back soon with that, and other, cherry recipes. (In the photo, you’ll see Cherry Bounce next to the vin de noix. That recipe was published in the Washington Post.)
Walnut forests grow in great swaths across the US. and for hundreds of years have been planted for the hard wood, for the dark stain, for the ripe nut, dried and stored over the winter. But don’t overlook the green nut or even the leaves. Check out my article for Garden & Gun’s latest issue to read about Chesapeake Bay Sauce, made from the young leaves of the walnut tree.
How to find green walnuts? Ask around at your farmers market this week. Stone fruit growers or apple growers often have a walnut tree or two. It’s worth the hunt. Of course, green walnuts may be ordered online, too.
Walnut stain is serious business. Wear gloves or wait a few weeks until it wears off.
Vin de Noix
Makes 6 liters
40 young, green walnuts
1 liter vodka
5 bottles of red wine (really, any red wine will do. I use the bottles that I’ll never drink.)
2 pounds sugar
Zest of 1 orange
1 vanilla bean, split
Gather the walnuts in late June when the nuts are well formed, but can still be pierced with a needle. Soak the nuts in cool water for 1 hour. Drain, dry and quarter.
Place all of the ingredients in an non-reactive container with a lid. I use a large 5 gallon glass jar. Stir well to begin to dissolve the sugar. Most of it will be on the bottom of the jar at first.
Store in a cool dark place for 40 days, stirring occasionally.
Strain through cheesecloth into a very large non-reactive bowl or food-safe bucket. Taste, and adjust the sugar if you want the drink to be sweeter. It will be a little harsh tasting, but will mellow as it ages.
Funnel the wine into quart jars (I repackage it in smaller decorative bottles for gifting.) Store in a cool dark place, letting the vin de noix age until December 1st.
Serve ice cold. With mandelbrot or buttery cookies. Especially nice in front of a crackling fire.