Vin de Noix
Last year I made a liqueur de noix with green walnuts that came out at the end of June. It was a wild ride into the unknown, and by September we were enjoying the fruits of that effort. I served it to the group at Thanksgiving and by the time mother came to visit in May we'd celebrated enough special occasions with friends that we tapped the last drop of our own vin maison from the decanter. My one big regret last year with the vin de noix was that I did not prepare a much bigger batch. The batch only yielded a bit more than a bottle, but certainly the quality of the elixer was magic. We put what we had into a fancy decanter and served it to enthusiastic friends little by little, using the small glasses, and I always sipped my share with a sad and guilty kind of bittersweet regret. Why oh why did we not make more?
My recipe was a kind of montage last year, with my knowledge of my mother-in-law Brigitte's Vin d'Orange and how she likes it strong, and some Italian recipes for nocino. Brigitte puts the Vin d'Orange away in bulk to macerate for several months every late winter. Images of her bottling activities, which take place in the summer, come to mind. Brigitte, wearing nothing but a bikini, in the kitchen with a couple of funnels rotating around into bottles which have been placed on every surface that will take one, and summoning Yves to come and add some muscle while they filter and decant it. For a long time afterward, the diligent sound of pounding comes from the kitchen as she inserts the corks and pounds them in one by one with a rubber mallet. She hands the bottles over to us with a kiss and a pat every time we need a new one, the elixer of her good cheer, reminding us of her sunny disposition (and her hair color as it was for a few years) to be taken whenever we need or even desire a little bit of Brigitte to fill our hearts with joy.
The idea to make the vin de noix actually came from Brigitte. I called her, asking her what I could do as a gift wine - she had given me the recipe for her Vin d'Orange once I had been married to Loic for a couple of years and although I definitely loved it and desired to make some of my own I didn't want to reproduce her family gift. She mused that I should be using something local - she gets her bitter oranges from the tree, they grow locally everywhere where she lives. 'Why not Vin de Noix? You are very close to Grenoble and they are famous for the walnuts.' So the idea was born, and I sat on it for awhile. I inquired when I might get some nuts for the vin de noix, and it was explained that they are ready to pick on the 3rd Sunday of June, the Fete de St. Jean, St. John the Baptist day.
The first year we missed the window, mainly because we didn't approach the right man. As everyone knows, sometimes the vendors at the market are not actually producers and don't understand their product. I approached a vendor who was selling nothing but walnuts from a very minimal operation and who looked somewhat like a walnut himself, in fact his entire being exuded the idea of walnut from the faded ash brown color of his hair to the suede boots he was wearing. You look at the fellow and are drawn into a long epic tale about the hardship and joys of walnuts. But it was just an act, one of those theatrical costumes that he had taken as far as living it out like one of those medieval actors you find at a theme park. We unfortunately find this at the markets here more and more often these days, and back then I was tricked. He quite knowlingly told me that green walnuts weren't ready yet. Those who are not in the know about their own product and what it's good for stubbornly deny the availability of such things as green walnuts. We glissed in perilous dismay through the window that year.
Then around mid-June during the next year, I identified and befriended an actual nut producer at the market on a Thursday and he confirmed and enthusiastically agreed to my plan. This one looked like a normal guy and after a bit of questioning it was clear he was the real deal. The nuts have to be used quickly after they're picked, and they have to be picked at just the right time. During the time when we had arranged for the pickup, I was in Paris with my niece, our last hurrah at the end of her stay with us before I deposited her on a plane at CDG bound for her home. We were just near the Sacre Coeur and overlooking the glorious city, I called and confirmed by portable phone that my authentic nut friend had the goods and then made another call to Loic to ensure that he hadn't forgotten his appointment to get them.
The first advice you'll see in any vin de noix recipe worth its weight is that you must wear gloves and not use a wooden cutting board when you make your vin de noix. This advice is not to be taken lightly. The immature nut pods exude a fluid that turns yellow, then brown, and then into an indelible black stain that is not unlike the semi-permanent henna tattoo you see Indian brides painted with at their betrothal. This staining liquid can seep into the tiniest crevices and take weeks to go away. Use gloves. Don't slice your walnuts on wood. Scrub your plastic cutting board with hot soapy water and a brush the moment you're finished cutting the nuts.
Last year's recipe did not use wine and experimented with spices, a liqueur. I had tasted the vin de noix and aperetif drinks on offer in the various tourist trap shops and wanted to shoot much higher. I knew that the taste of the nuts has a lot of character. The other thing was that I really wanted to avoid the sugar syrup flavor that grabs you like barba papa from the commercial versions. So my idea was to use another sweetening agent, something that harmonizes gracefully with nuts and won't just seem cheap and sweet. Grade B Maple syrup was my choice.
Liqueur de Noix
38 green walnuts, quartered
1 vanilla bean
2 star anise
2 long peppercorns
2 thick slices of lemon
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup grade B maple syrup
500ml or 2 cups Noilly Pratt Original Dry
1 bottle of vodka
I mixed this up in a large bowl, covered it, and let it sit for a few months. At 2 weeks I became afraid that the star anise was going to take over, so I removed it. The result at the 2 month mark was slightly bitter and maybe a bit medicinal, due to the high alcohol content. I bottled it and put it away for some more time, and at month 4, it had mellowed and rounded out, and something happened to the flavors that was extraordinary - it was clearly something special. Very special. I mean this stuff was so incredibly delicious it became kind of like a precious nectar we had to guard and treat with kid gloves. We began serving it to friends and also using it to prepare a special sauce for magret de canard and drop by drop it dissapeared.
This year I wanted to multiply my output by at least 10, but realized we could not afford all of the vodka that would take. I did some more research into what went into various traditional French vin de noix recipes, and settled on some changes to my recipe this time. This is for a less alcoholic drink but still something with some serious punch following in the family tradition. It will produce 12 gift bottles plus a little stash on the side for sipping and cooking here at home. This year I omitted the star anise, and introduced szchuan peppercorn, due to the pleasant things I've discovered during cooking about the light floral flavors it imparts. I replaced the lemon with orange, and used a bit more per volume because I enjoyed a nice warmed up glass of last year's wine on a cold late autumn day with an orange slice and it was a great compliment. I replaced the cinnamon with the traditional cloves. And last but not least, instead of dry vermouth, my vin de noix is topped with a hearty full bodied white Burgundy wine. Noted below, the ratios per 1.5 liter jar.
Vin de Noix
Per 1.5 liter jar:
About 8 nuts each jar
1/2 cup grade B maple syrup
1/3 vanilla bean
1 t. szchuan peppercorns
2 slices of an orange
top off with a full bodied white burgundy (Bourgogne) wine (used 5 bottles to fill all 6 of the jars to the top).
Vin de noix, in order to turn it's beautiful deep dark color, needs contact with some air. This is why mason jars are perfect for this - because you can close them without using the rubber gasket and they'll have enough air circulating to allow the liquid to turn black. Once 2 months have gone by, filter and bottle your vin de noix. Seal the bottles tightly then, and allow it to mature for another month or two before giving it away. By all means, taste it at every step, to understand how it develops and what to expect. You'll be suprised at the many different stages it goes through. I'll report back when this is ready to bottle.