How You ACTUALLY Forage Black Walnuts, Week Ending 6/30/2019

I have a confession to make.

I am a bad forager.

I never used the black walnuts (Juglans nigra) I harvested last fall. I think they are still buried somewhere in the shed, perhaps by now covered in mold, waiting for me to muster the time and energy to shell them all. I even learned the secret to cracking them open: crush them against a concrete surface with a tamper. (Because everyone has a tamper, right?) It was that, or shell out money for a fancy black walnut cracker. But I am trying to avoid buying my way out of problems. I know, I know, that’s the typical American approach – there is a gadget to solve every little problem, which you can find at an okay price online that even has free shipping if you have a certain paid subscription. Only, that’s not who I want to be.

But I digress.

This year, I decided to leverage this bountiful local resource the smart way: with a batch of nocino.

Nocino is a traditional walnut liqueur enjoyed primarily in Italy. The immature walnuts are harvested in June, and the liqueur is ready around Christmas. I am sure they use Juglans regia, the common walnut (often labeled as “English Walnut” in the nut and fruit tree catalogs that mysteriously keep showing up in my mail). But black walnuts are what I can get, so black walnuts I shall use.

During the spring, I stalked the local trees, looking for low branches with forming fruit I could easily reach. Often by the time the tree is mature enough to produce nuts, its branches tower overhead and you would need a nasty windstorm to knock the fruit to the ground. Luckily, I found a tree near my home with more than enough immature fruit within arm’s reach.

Immature black walnuts, almost within reach
Immature black walnuts, almost within reach

I followed the nocino recipe in Preserving Wild Foods, although I didn’t count out the exact number of walnuts I used. The recipe calls for 24, but the sizes varied so greatly, I just made sure I had at least 24. The authors recommend scaling the recipe up for Christmas gifts, but I have given liqueurs as gifts in past years. They always just sit politely on the shelf, collecting dust. So I only made enough for myself.

The insides of immature black walnuts
The insides of immature black walnuts

I was skeptical about being able to chop them, given how tough mature walnuts are. However at this stage everything – husk, shell and all – is still soft enough for a sharp knife to cut through. The immature nuts didn’t seem to stain as badly as mature nut hulls do, but I still cleaned and rinsed everything up quickly just in case.

Chopped black walnuts
Chopped black walnuts

I used Everclear and water rather than vodka. And I didn’t have a one gallon jar so I split the chopped nuts equally by weight between two half-gallon jars.

After only a few days, the liquid had turned inky black. It looked vaguely like a science project gone horribly wrong.

Nocino in progress
Nocino in progress

I’m sure it will be tasty though… unfortunately, we have to wait until Christmas to find out! Stay tuned!

4 comments

  1. Your pictures look just like a stand of trees behind my condo! Dozens of those little nuts (fruits?) within easy reach. I’m not a DIY foodie though… Farmers markets are as green as I’ll get.

    • But it’s fun doing DIY food projects… especially since you never know what you’ll get! Or you want to make something but want it exactly custom for your tastes – DIY is the way to go!

  2. Looking forwards to vicariously enjoying the results!
    I did wonder about planting walnuts (J. regia) here (Skye, Scotland). They are unlikely to ripen, but the other thing you can do with them green is make pickled walnuts. I think I’ll buy a ready made jar first to see if I like them rather than waiting 10 years or so for a tree to fruit and finding they are foul!

    • I didn’t even know pickled walnuts were a thing! I don’t mind waiting six months to find out if I like nocino, but I definitely agree that 10 years is a long time to wait if you aren’t even sure you’d like pickled walnuts.

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