Here in western Oregon, late June to mid-July is the time to pick green walnuts. You don’t need your own tree; just walk the country roads for a while and look up, into the great green canopy of an old tree that somehow survived the destruction, by storm or bulldozer, of a once-lucrative orchard, or shaded a farmhouse long since crumbled or burned. If you’re unsure the tree is a walnut—English, not black—kick the dirt at your feet, and uncover an old half shell or a whole nut, speckled with mold. Scan the branches for bright-green fruits, oval and no more than two inches long. If the tree is at the edge of a grass or grain field, with no occupied house nearby, the farmer is almost surely absentee. He would be happy to have you take some nuts, and probably the rest of the tree with them. Fill your pockets. Promise the tree you’ll be back come fall, to pick mature nuts off the ground.
Hold a nut to your nose as you walk, to inhale the delicious resinous aroma—a cross, to my nose, between lime and eucalyptus. Too bad a green walnut isn’t edible, not in its natural state. But you can make it so, provided the nut hasn’t yet developed a hard shell. To be sure you’ve harvested in time, pierce one of the nuts with a needle when you get home. You should be able too easily push the needle to the center.
Before eating the nuts, you’ll want to soak out their bitterness in multiple changes of water. Then you can either pickle them or preserve them in syrup. Pickled walnuts are, for me, interesting at best, but I love the spicy, syrupy, chewy preserves, especially for the way the peeled green fruits take on the brain-like shape of mature, hulled walnuts. The Joy of Pickling includes a recipe for pickled walnuts, and The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves has one for green walnut preserves.
You don’t need to soak your walnuts if you plan to drink them—that is, to drink in their bitter taste and perfume in an alcoholic beverage. You need only about two dozen green walnuts to make a liter of green walnut liqueur. Called liqueur de noix by the French, licor de nueces verdes by Spaniards, orahovac by Croats, and, most famously, nocino or nocillo by Italians, the liqueur is made by simply steeping fresh, unhusked green walnuts with a few other flavorings in alcohol.
My recipe is much like most others, except that I’ve used honey in place of the usual refined sugar. Occasional additions are vanilla beans (perhaps to imitate the effect of aging in oak, which is sometimes done for commercial walnut liqueurs), orange peel, and walnut leaves. The alcohol can be in the form of Everclear, brandy, marc, or eau de vie instead of vodka.
Green Walnut Liqueur
1 pound green walnuts (about 24)
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
Zest of 1 lemon, in strips
1½ cups honey
1 liter vodka
Wearing gloves so your hands don’t blacken, crack each walnut by smacking it with the side of a heavy knife or cleaver. Don’t worry if some of the nuts break into pieces. Put the nuts into a 2-quart jar along with the cinnamon, cloves, and lemon zest, and pour the honey over. Add the vodka, close the jar tightly, and shake it briefly. Wash your cutting board immediately so the walnut juice doesn’t blacken it.
Every day, shake the jar or stir its contents. This will not only help the honey to dissolve but also turn the nuts so that contact with air will eventually blacken them all over. When this happens, you can put the jar in a cupboard. The liquid will turn black, and the walnuts will sink to the bottom.
At least two months after mixing the ingredients, filter the liquid through muslin (last year I took three and a half months to get around to this, but no matter). The liqueur will be as black as strong coffee, with a slight greenish tinge. Funnel the liqueur into bottles, close them tightly, and store them in a dark place as long as you like. Many people say that green walnut liqueur is best after a year’s aging.
“It tastes like Christmas,” two of my children told me, on separate occasions, upon first tasting green walnut liqueur. Have the liqueur in winter as an aperitif or nightcap, perhaps with milk or cream, or dilute it with white wine for a warm-weather drink.
The French often add wine at the start. The following recipe comes from my daughter’s friend Tanya, who teaches at a professional school for cooks in Brittany.
Tanya’s recipe calls for the equivalent of three bottles plus about a cup of white wine. You might round off the amount to three bottles. Again, you might use another sort of liquor, such as brandy or vodka, rather than eau de vie in the narrow sense of alcool blanc.
Aperitif aux Noix
20 green walnuts
2½ liters dry white wine
½ liter eau de vie
2/3 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
In a gallon jar, combine all the ingredients. Stir, and close the jar tightly. Let it sit for two months, stirring from time to time.
Filter the liquid, taste it, and add a little sugar, if you like. Funnel the liquid into bottles, and close them securely. “Conservation excellente,” says Tanya.