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A local chef uses walnuts and almonds to create two Italian-inspired after-dinner drinks

Nicole Cormier
Green almonds

I first started talking with Jake Hetnarski back in late July. My friend Nicole texted asking if I could help a chef friend of hers collect some unripe black walnuts to make a traditional Italian liqueur. I told her I know where the trees are. But the small, green, still soft nuts were so high up, I wasn’t sure how to get them. The next day she left on a road trip to South Dakota. And I figured the conversation was over. But when Nicole returned, she had fifteen pounds of unripe black walnuts in her truck. She’d stayed at a campsite in the Midwest and found the ground littered with them, so she picked them up.

"She came back and gave me them," Jake explains. "And then that day I was traveling for a couple of weeks. And so by the time that we came back, they were pretty whole nuts. They were not soft green walnuts anymore. But we still tried to make this."

This is nocino — an ancient bitter liqueur. According to historians the mixture of unripe walnuts aged with sugar and alcohol came to Italy via Britain hundreds or maybe even thousands of years ago — and legend has it that the best nocino is made by witches who gather under walnut trees on La Notte di San Giovanni — around the summer solstice on the 23rd of June — and the idea is that the developing nuts are still so tender you can cut through their shells.

When you're looking at the nut you see the hulls and then it looks like you cut straight through the shell of the green nuts, like they're not developed yet.

Then Jake explained that the nut is actually like jelly.

When he thought he couldn’t get local black walnuts, Jake ended up ordering unripe green almonds from California and making another batch of experimental liqueur called mandorlino. He says he learned to appreciate these after-dinner drinks a long time ago thanks to an Italian grandmother.

"She's a huge Frenet Branca drinker. And so I remember being even a very young child, like six in my stomach, being kind of upset. And she would always tell me, like, I just have some Fernet. Like, it's either going to make you puke or make you feel so much better."

That’s the thing about bitter Italian liqueurs like Frenet and Nocino and the almond version called mandorlino — they were originally made as medicines to extract plant compounds that are said to aid digestion. The Italian witches apparently aged their liqueurs made from unripe nuts for about four months so recently Nicole and I went over to Jake’s to see if his were done. We started with a large container of amber-colored liqueur.

Jake is using green almonds. The recipe is from one of his favorite Italian "food people," Fabrizio Lanza. She has a cooking school in Sicily.

Jake picks up a massive strainer and begins pouring the green almonds and the liquid and spices they’ve been soaking with through it:

"It has like lemons and some cinnamon, I think maybe clove."

The mandorlino smells like Christmas, and when we taste it, it tastes almost exactly like an amaro — syrupy and sweet but with bitter undertones of citrus, flowers, and spice. The nocino on the other hand when we first open it up looks less appealing.

"Well there's like this kind of weird-looking oil on top," Jake said.

"Yeah it almost looks crystal-like," Nicole agreed.

I thought it looked like tar or gas or even like a swamp.

Jake wondered why it was stuck to the sides.

Still, we decided to strain it, and then reluctant to take a sip we just tasted it by dipping a finger.

It was shockingly good. Even though it looks like gasoline!

The nocino was unlike anything I’ve ever had before. Dark, deeply earthy, and slightly bitter but still walking just close enough to sweet, it was clearly a drink meant to be savored. And while normally you’d drink a digestive after the meal, this felt like something meant to sip slowly alongside something to eat.

Jake recommends pairing it with cheese, especially sheep’s milk. And if you're a coffee fan, putting it in an espresso martini.

"Also, Suzanne Goin has this great chocolate Guinness stout cake recipe that I'm like, if you put this and with half of that Guinness, that would be pretty sexy. And have a little bite and a little sip!"

Here's the recipe for Suzanne Goin's Chocolate Guinness Stout Cake, which Jake thinks would be excellent with nocino around the holidays: https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2006/mar/15/end-st-paddys-meal-with-chocolate-stout-cake/

The recipe for Mandorlino or Green Almond Liqueur:

And a recipe for Nocino:

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.