by Gareth Jones
A tradition so richly experienced on the festival eve of San Giovanni, better known as “St. John’s,” in Spilamberto (near Modena – Emilia-Romagna) had me transported me back to innocent childhood days in Wales. Straying across the fields from the parental home I’d live more in my grandmother’s old cottage – hers was once an inn on a long forgotten village green and was built using the village stocks as a door lintel into her dining room. So the story goes, mature hardwood had been short for building and everything was saved – including timbers from broken ships, recognised even then by their Lloyd’s number carved or burnt into the side. Grandma had one of those too – and stirring tales of bravery at sea to go with it.
Around this time (end-June/early-July), yet knowing nothing then of the Saint’s Day, we would pick ‘green’ walnuts – green skinned and soft before their hard shells formed below the fleshy outer casing.
These we would wash, dry and prick with a pin several times per nut. They would then be cooked in salted water, dried and let to cool before being set to cure in a vinegar sweetened with brown sugar – or perhaps it was molasses given the rich, dark colour. There are recipes going back through the ages – even Hannah Glasse in her The Art of Cookery wrote three. One each for ‘green’, ‘white’ and ‘black’ walnuts.
There would surely have been mace and nutmeg in Grandma’s recipe as there were her two favourite spices – she wore a whole nutmeg about her person, swearing it would ward off arthritis. At over 86 years when she died, arthritis was never one of her ailments.
For a good few days after preparing the green walnuts our fingers would be stained dark yellow, like the nicotined fingers of a heavy smoker. Grandma liked to smoke untipped cigarettes when, her jobs were done, she could sit in her garden for a half hour’s reflection and storytelling — when she was out of her beloved Woodbines, then a clay pipe filled with tobacco from Grandpa’s jar would be her choice of smoke. I imagined her as a gypsy and her tales were better for that.
Months later, probably in the late Autumn, Grandma would break out the first Kilner jar of that year’s Pickled Walnuts which she’d serve with cold, boiled ham hocks or her own homemade pork pie in the late afternoon to the many all comers to her table — a venue popular with curates, vicars, family and friends from the town down in the valley. Grandma understood open house better than any I’ve met before or since.
Mine isn’t a recipe for Pickled Walnuts and anyway Nana Jones’, like all her recipes, was she would tell you ’in her head’ and so long since gone. Richard Olney’s Time Life ‘Good Cook’ series has a good one, listed in the Preserving volume as a receipt, from Ann Blencowe – and hers has mace and nutmeg too.
La Notte di San Giovanni (St John’s Night – June 23/24) is the time the people will traditionally pick the green walnuts in the area around Modena. Year to year, the readiness of the fruits may change by a few days either way, but June 23/24 is as good a guide as any and in Spilamberto is celebrated either way, as with the Palio di San Giovanni for the Balsamico Tradizionale.
Walnuts in Emilia-Romagna are made into a local digestivo called, not surprisingly, Nocino – ‘noci’ being a walnut. Further north, in Liguria, they make a pestle & mortar pounded sauce for pasta called Salsa di Noci with the nut once formed and peeled to remove bitterness and bring forward the full richness of, which for me is the king of nuts.
The walnut has a special place in Blue Collar Gastronomy, from homemade Nocino and the Salsa, to the ‘wet’ walnuts served with cheese and port in the autumn. Take care though – too many ‘wet’ walnuts will bring on a tummy ache only rivalled by eating scrumped apples.
To make Nocino at home in England is difficult unless one can source good quality 95° buon gusto alcohol – freely sold in shops across Europe, but rarely found in the U.K. beyond one called Polish Pure Spirit which I’ve not seen in years. Treat yourself to some bottles when next abroad and keep it safe for such a day – it’s undrinkable in pure form.
In the Italian home, the green walnuts are first quartered and then macerated for 24 hours – roughly 1 kg of nuts (33-35) to 700-900g of sugar, depending on taste. They are then mixed with 1 litre of alcohol in a clear glass demi-john and let to sit in the sunshine on the terraces and balconies across the region as fermentation and maturation takes its course. Homemade digestivo’s are commonplace across much of mainland Europe, specially with older people who hold dear their family’s recipes passed down through the generations.
Come autumn, the whole mixture is passed through a potato ricer (best of all they tell me – but a sieve will do just fine – it’s just harder work) and then filtered through muslin to pick any extraneous pieces and so possible disfigurements to the final rich, dark drink. Before then, the liquid must spend another 12 months in barrels to mature and round off the flavours. Kept longer and the walnut flavour will be lost.
Nocino has its roots in Parma and Modena – the best I have tasted have been homemade, but many commercial varieties are on sale too. None I know are truly industrial in production, so all will be good – some just very good.
I was first served Nocino in a long since defunct King’s Road (London) trattoria in the late 1970′s at the close of a special dinner to celebrate the culture and food of Parma. I came away with a half bottle of chef’s Nocino and a palm-sized stubby, pointed knife for cracking and breaking the wheels of cheese. They’d served the Nocino with pieces of aged Parmagiano-Reggiano drizzled with Balsamico. It was my first taste of the liquor and the vinegar and now I’ve been to source. I still have the knife which I thrill to use whenever the purse provided a large enough piece of Parmesan to cut.
As if to gild our www.cantforget.it lily, soon I will talk of making ‘mountain’ Parmigiano-Reggiano, the best matured for 30 months high in the hills and fresh air above Langhirano.
It seems we can’t report on Balsamico without giving mention to Nocino, both having Modenese roots. They are both eerily close on a taste and appearance spectrum too. Nonna, nuts and Nocino.
For Nocino: www.ordinedelnocinomodenese.it