Nocino da Napa

Posted by Anita on 06.24.07 8:07 PM

(c)2007 AEC *all rights reserved*Every June 24, Catholics around the globe celebrate the feast-day of John the Baptist. And every year, on that same day, traditional-minded Europeans head into their local walnut orchards, filling baskets and bags with unripe nuts in order to make nocino, an Italian walnut liqueur, or its French cousin vin de noix.

We’ve made nocino every summer for the past three years, usually a bit later than the traditional saint’s day due to trouble in our local supply chain. Suffice to say that we lack the necessary ferme, fattoria, or bucolic farmhouse of any sort, and we’ve relied either on nuts shipped from afar or the whimsical schedule of a certain vendor at the Alemany market.

This year, we not only avoided our usual delay, we even jumped the gun a bit. But I hope you’ll agree our motives were good: We were off to Yountville for our anniversary, and I’d remembered reading Shuna’s story last fall about Hoffman Farm, a Napa u-pick with a vast walnut orchard. The idea of making liqueur with nuts we’d plucked ourselves from local trees was simply too attractive to pass up, no matter the date was a tad early.

It took me days to work up the nerve to call John Hoffman and explain what I had in mind. He’d never heard of anyone wanting green walnuts before. “You do know they’re incredibly bitter?” he asked me on the phone. But he graciously allowed that we might stop the coming weekend and pick some nuts, as long as we didn’t come on Sunday morning during church. I assured him that we’d work around his schedule, and would be sure to call before we came, in any case.

Saturday rolled around, bright and sunny. We called Mr. Hoffman to make sure he was home, then donned hats and sunscreen and pointed the car toward Silverado Highway. Just past the intersection with Trancas, we spied the farm’s little sign, a blink-and-miss-it affair. We pulled up the gravel drive and found Mr. Hoffman waiting for us in the shade near his farmhouse garage.

We introduced ourselves and chatted a bit, and he asked me to remind him about what I would do with my early harvest. I explained about splitting the nuts and soaking them in alcohol for most of the summer, then setting aside the strained, sweetened infusion until Christmastime. I marveled that a walnut farmer — and one with Italian in-laws, at that — had never tasted what I’d always assumed was a relatively common homebrew. Not only had he never made it, he’d never even heard of it. Chuckling, he quipped: “Sounds like a waste of a good bottle of vodka,” and winked at Cameron.

(c)2007 AEC *all rights reserved*Then he picked up his cane and strolled us out into the orchard. A sun-dappled canopy of walnut boughs stretched as far as the eye could see, all the way back to the crossroads. Mr. Hoffman showed us how to avoid the nuts that suffered from blight — they were few, this early in the season — and how to spy the telltale bore holes of caterpillar infestation. He reached for his pocketknife and cut open one of the few rotten nuts he could find, to show me how the fungus penetrates the hull and works its way to the developing meat.

It was a botany tutorial, a history lesson, and a glimpse at a disappearing way of life. The Hoffmans have worked this land since the end of World War II. Now, they’re farming one of Napa’s few remaining diversified acreages, as vineyards squeeze out the fruits and nuts that once were the valley’s pride. As Shuna mentions, although the Hoffman land is protected for agricultural use, there’s nothing to prevent these noble trees from being torn out in favor of yet another mass of wine grapes.

After a half hour of picking nuts and snapping photos in the late-morning glow, we brought our canvas sack back to the garage. Mr. Hoffman discussed how to price our unusual transaction while he weighed our haul on his weathered scale. When all was said and done, he refused to take more than a fraction of what we’re used to paying, even when we told him that the going rate was much, much higher. He shook his head like we were citified fools, then added: “You can keep the quarters if you tell me that recipe again.” I smiled broadly and promised to send him prints of the photos we’d taken, plus a few different recipes to try.

We grinned all the way home, amazed at our good fortune in finding Mr. Hoffman — all thanks to Shuna.

After stopping by the local liquor depot for bottles of 100-proof vodka, I quickly set to work halving and quartering the green nuts, measuring sweeteners and spices, and sterilizing my infusing jars. Never had I had the luxury of using nuts picked within hours of infusing, much less 7 pounds worth gathered with my own two hands. Unsurprisingly, we had sufficient nuts for two different batches of nocino — my usual recipe, plus an experiment — as well as a version of Abra’s traditional vin de noix and Lucy’s lighter recipe made with white Burgundy and maple syrup.

I left my quartet of crockery on the new breakfast table for a day or two; they caught the light so beautifully that I wanted to see them (and sneak a sniff of them) all the time. Once the liquids steeped to a black-hole opacity, I followed tradition and put them out in the garden — in this case, the back deck — where they’ll commune with nature for the next 40 days and 40 nights. Then we’ll filter them, bottle them, and wait for the other end of the year, when midwinter brings us yet another celebration of the natural cycle disguised as a religious feast.

(c)2007 AEC *all rights reserved*(c)2007 AEC *all rights reserved*(c)2007 AEC *all rights reserved*(c)2007 AEC *all rights reserved*(c)2007 AEC *all rights reserved*

Hoffman Farm
2125 Silverado Trail
Napa, CA 94558
707 226-8938

drinks, holidays & occasions, Italian, locavore, Napa & Sonoma, preserving & infusing
13 Comments »

 

13 Comments »

Comment by helenjane

What an inspiring story! I forget sometimes, the other farmers in my backyard. Thanks so much for sharing.

Posted on 06.25.07 at 9:54AM

Comment by Sean

I’m still nursing the batch from two years back. Heavenly, heady stuff!

Posted on 06.25.07 at 10:57AM

Comment by Lucy Vanel

I’m so glad you decided to try my recipe this year, Anita. Your walnuts are gorgeous.

Posted on 06.26.07 at 5:30AM

Comment by Kalyn

Hi Anita and Cameron,
Hope you had a great time for the Anniversary dinner. It was great meeting you both in San Francisco. Look forward to hearing about how the walnut liqueur turns out! (Very impressed! I’ve never tried making anything like this.)

Posted on 06.26.07 at 10:44AM

Comment by erik_flannestad

Cool!

Next year I’ll have to try to hook up with Hoffman Farms.

Mine should arrive from Mount Lassen tomorrow. Can’t wait to hear how your various batches turn out. I’ve got at least one experimental version up my sleeve this year.

Posted on 06.26.07 at 3:57PM

Comment by Curmudgeon

I lived in the Napa Valley for 23 years,and made Nocino from a recipe I got from a friend who lives near Parma. It is my considered opinion that that while June 24 is associated with picking the green walnuts for Nocino in Italy, that is too late for the Napa Valley as the shell inside the green husk has already started to become hard. I did it on May 24, because Mama Emilia also said when they are about the size of a home grown apricot.

Posted on 07.16.09 at 10:36PM

Comment by Anita

Curmudgeon: We actually picked our walnuts for this batch the first weekend in June, and they were perfect. But I’ve also gotten nuts a few weeks later, and they worked just fine, although they need a little more elbow grease to chop. :)

Posted on 07.16.09 at 10:38PM

Comment by Nina

I made vin de noix two years ago with my boyfriend using nuts off of a coworker’s tree; many of them were already infested with little worms, but we disposed of the unusable ones and thoroughly cleaned the rest. It was a little past green stage, about halfway to being ripe, and the little buggers were present on basically every nut. Despite this, we threw together a few bottles of the concoction, and we’ve enjoyed it tremendously over the last two years. We finished our last bottle a few weeks ago, and are prepared to make another batch this summer. Vin de noix is delicious, delicious stuff; it’s better one year in, and even better two years in. I suspect it will continue to improve for a few years.

Even though handling worm-covered walnuts that stain your hands permanently is a huge pain…the payoff is so, so worth it. Subtle nutty, fruity notes, perfectly mellowed out, so awesome. It’s what I serve when I want to knock someone off their feet.

Posted on 05.02.10 at 11:54PM

Comment by kate springer

hi, just came across this post. i am wondering can i use black walnuts? i have a farm in upstate ny and have many black walnut trees. i would love to try this. thanks

Posted on 07.14.10 at 6:02PM

Comment by Anita

Kate: I’m not entirely sure. We once lived in a house with a black walnut tree, and I seem to recall that we looked into this, and there was some reason that it wasn’t recommended (not sure if it was a toxicity issue, or simply that they’re too bitter). Sorry I can’t be more helpful on this point! If you find out definitively, I’d love it if you could let us know!

If it makes you feel any better, it’s almost certainly too late to make nocino this year; once the shell hardens, you won’t be able to quarter the nuts enough. Ours are usually nearly impenetrable by the third week of June — by now they’re almost fully ripe.

Posted on 07.15.10 at 5:36PM

Comment by A

I have a black walnut tree in my yard in the SF Bay Area and just picked the nuts for my first-ever batch of nocino. The small nuts were still soft enough to cut through, but the larger ones were too far gone. I look forward to the results of this experiment as I’ve never tried nocino before. Cheers!

Posted on 07.28.10 at 11:15PM

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Posted on 06.13.11 at 5:14PM

Comment by paulL

Our walnuts come in a little later than some of the other locations mentioned. It’s probably to do with the latitude and elevation. Southern NH and at about 1100 feet above sea level.

We just picked yesterday July 25th, to make a batch and they are just perfect for Vin de Noix.

Posted on 07.26.11 at 9:15AM

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