Walnut trees are ubiquitous on Portland streets and, along with horse chestnuts, are known for the heavy orbs they drop in autumn. Considering these trees can get more than 100 feet tall, I'll leave it to you figure out the terminal velocity of a green walnut plummeting from that height and what it might do to the roof of your car (or you) should you be unlucky enough to be passing beneath it when it falls.
Jason about 40 feet up the tree harvesting walnuts.
Though the history books are sketchy on whether it was intentional, the ancient Celts prevented the unripe green walnuts from launching their reign (or rain?) of terror on passersby by picking them and steeping them in alcohol to make a dark brown liqueur. The Italians thought this was a great idea and dubbed it nocino (pron. no-CHEE-no).
Cathy Whims using Zen-like concentration to find just the right leaves.
When contributor Jim Dixon of RealGoodFood informed me that he would be making nocino one afternoon last week, I promptly invited myself over. Expecting to document a complicated process of harvesting and distilling, I arrived to find Jim presiding over a very Italian repast of vino verde, fabulous charcuterie from Marco Frattaroli of Basta's, bread and homemade pimento cheese (yes, I'm begging him for the recipe). Joining him were Cathy Whims and David West, who would be taking some of the walnuts back to Nostrana to make their own batch of the liqueur.
Halving the walnuts, filling the jar.
No fool, Jim had wisely arranged for his young friend Jason Messer of Madrone Arboriculture to climb the very tall tree and harvest the walnuts. Somewhat relieved I wouldn't have to shinny up the trunk myself, I was happy to scamper about on the ground, picking up the nuts that fell and untying the full buckets that Jason and his friend Nick lowered to the ground.
Adding the alcohol.
After several buckets were gathered, Jim pulled out his trusty cleaver and began whacking them in half and tossing them into a gallon-sized glass jar. When it was full, he stuffed in a few of the tree's resinous leaves for extra flavor, filled it with 180 proof grain alcohol and screwed on the lid. It will sit outside in his garden for a couple of months, then just about the time the weather starts cooling he'll strain out the nuts and leaves, add some simple syrup and have a lovely liqueur that he says is perfect to take skiing or to have in front of the fire on a wintry night. Sounds good to me.
1 gallon-size glass jar
30-40 green walnuts
1 gallon 180 proof grain alcohol, known as Everclear (in Oregon it's Clear Spring and is available from select OLCC stores)
Walnut leaves, optional
Simple syrup (3 parts sugar to 4 parts water mixture)
Halve walnuts and fill jar, adding a few leaves at the end if desired. Fill jar with alcohol and secure lid. Place outdoors. Within a few days it will look like used motor oil. Wait at least two months, then strain out nuts and leaves. Next, Jim says, "I'd recommend diluting the walnut-flavored alcohol with an equal amount of syrup, which gives you 90 proof nocino, then trying it to see if you like it 'hot.' If not, you can add more plain water and/or syrup to dilute it down. Around 80 proof (40% alcohol) is what I like, which is 2 parts alcohol to 3 parts syrup/water." Great as is or over ice cream for dessert.