Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Thief in the Night

Last week (actually, it was the night of roasted vegetable pizza and Big Love) I noticed a strange ‘fruit’ growing on a tree by the sidewalk. It resembled a lime- bright green and the size of a medium small lime… just hanging there from a leafy tree. And there wasn’t just one, mind you, this tree was full of these little lime-like goodies. However, I was skeptical. The skin was much too smooth to be the kind of lime I’m used to, and don’t limes grow in hotter, tropical climates?

I stealthily plucked one the mystery fruits, looking both ways to make sure no one was watching (hey, this tree was half way on someone’s property…it could very well be a privately owned mystery fruit tree!) With mystery fruit in hand, I ran inside and grabbed a cutting board and knife. Slicing clean through the middle, I soon discovered that this was no lime. The inside had a white cavity (actually, cavity is appropriate, because it was almost shaped like a molar). There was a filmy slime-goo layer inside the folds of the cavity, and the edges of the cut oozed light green liquid. It smelled piney.

I left the two halves of mystery fruit on the counter, and ran to my computer to do some research, yelling to Evan to ‘not touch it, it may be poisonous.’ I did several Google web and picture searches, typing in things like ‘green lime sized fruit.’ Finally, I saw a result for photo of the mystery fruit, it was titled ‘walnuts.’ Walnuts!? This was no fruit at all… it was a WALNUT! I searched for green walnuts to confirm my findings. Sure enough, it was an unripe green walnut. WHO KNEW THAT WALNUTS LOOK LIKE THAT!? Apparently, a lot of people (including Mel).

Walnuts grow with a protective peel-like layer around their shell, which is the lime-like skin. When they’re young and un-ripe, the shell is soft, and the nut isn’t yet formed (this is the molar like cavity). Also unbeknownst to me… the fact that while the juice is initially a transparent greenie-clear color… it soon turns black and stains everything it touches. Whoops. There goes that cutting board. During my research, I learned that not only do walnuts start out green and soft-shelled, they are also commonly used (in this stage) to make a syrupy black Italian walnut liqueur called Nocino. Once I had confirmed-100% without a doubt- that these were indeed unripe green walnuts, I waiting until it got dark, and headed back out to the tree.

According to tradition, Italians pick the walnuts on San Giovanni, June 24th. Since I’m not Italian, I picked them on July 7th, and I think they’ll be just fine. Working quickly, like a thief in the night, I snatched 25 walnuts off the tree and ran back inside. The next day (after stashing them out of site because Evan didn’t like the smell) I read up on the basic formula for Nocino making. Basically, fill a big jar with quartered un-ripe green walnuts, cover with grain alcohol, and throw in extras that could include orange rinds, lemon rinds, spices, and sugar. Shake daily for up to 6 months. Strain and transfer to jars. I took it. I ran with it. I made Nocino.

After carefully (but not carefully enough) quartering the walnuts (my thumb is black from the juice), I covered them with the highest proof, lowest priced vodka I could buy, added 2 cups of sugar, 2 cinnamon sticks, half of a vanilla bean, 1 star anise, 4 whole cloves, and the peel of one orange and one lemon.

I’ll keep you updated along the way, but like many great things, Nocino gets better with age, and we won’t be drinking this baby for about a year! In the meantime, I shake it once a day (to mix it up so nothing settles on the bottom) and hope for the best. Here's to Nocino!

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