In a saucy Washington Post opinion piece on February 24, 2012, columnist Alexandra Petri made fun of Mitt Romney. Campaigning for the Republican nomination, he was visiting Michigan, a state he’s sort of from (his father was the State’s governor from 1963 to 1969). In a speech he expressed his affection for Michigan by noting that “all the trees are the right height.” Petri let him have it, noting that his comment “bears a resemblance to what on TV sitcoms is called chuffa — something that sounds sort of funny but isn’t an actual joke.” Romney’s attempts at humor she describes as “verbal clockwork oranges.”
I agreed with her at the time. Why can’t the guy just talk normal?
Lately, though, while hitting the road early in the morning, walking mental health miles with my wife, I’ve been reminded of Romney’s remark. Maybe it’s the time of day and the quality of the light, but there’s something about the trees that makes me just a little soggy in the brain. They’re so darned beautiful. (That sounds like a Mittism, I know.) They just are. We walk, we talk, we count the deer that surprise us by the side of the road and in neighbors’ yards, and we look up into the trees. That’s a gorgeous maple. Holy cow, what a majestic oak. There’s a birch that’s not long for this world. I love that shaggy pine.
The other day we passed beneath the low branches of a black walnut tree. My wife looked up, pulled down a leafy branch, and palmed the green fruit.
“I’m going to make nocino,” she said.
“Good idea,” I said, thinking, Just what we need, more nocino.
Not something you find in the US, nocino (pronounced “no-CHEEN-oh,” from the Italian noce, the word for walnut) is a walnut-based after-dinner digestive, a digestivo. Some years ago we bought a bottle at a monastery store in Camaldali, Italy. A decade or two before that, we brought home a bottle of the stuff her aunt made.
As a school girl Zia Angela went into a convent, where she learned a variety of culinary and domestic arts. Her nocino was good, so good we foolishly didn’t drink it. It had sentimental value. We wanted to save it. I don’t think it spoiled, it had too much alcohol in it for that, but resting in its nondescript bottle in a basement cabinet, it thickened and grew sludgy and unappealing.
The monks’ stuff, on the other hand, just wasn’t very good. We still have that nocino too, in its nut-shaped bottle (that looks too much like a peanut) in the dining room liquor cabinet we rarely open. I can’t remember the last time I had a digestivo. It was probably in Italy, and it was probably grappa. It’s very likely that a few hours later, stomach-wise, that digestive aid came to feel like a mistake. There is such a thing as grappa regret.
On our walks over the next few days we notice a couple more black walnut trees with low-hanging fruit. My wife pulls down a few choice nuts, still in their thick, lime green casing, and hands them to me.
“This will be fun,” she says.
Walnuts are a nuisance. We have 3-4 trees in the backyard. The nuts accumulate under the tree, crack open, turn black and greasy. Edward Hirsch’s poem “Apologia for Buzzards” comes to mind. “Nobody welcomes me. Nobody.” That’s how walnuts must feel. We always told the kids: Don’t touch them.
But yes, an adventure. What I think but do not say is: Who’s going to drink it? Probably not me. Probably not her, either. I don’t remember the last time she finished a meal off with a splash of anything other than espresso.
According to Drizly.com, “A proper after dinner drink is higher in alcohol content and helps to stimulate the digestive enzymes after a big meal.”
Yes, I get my digestion science from Drizly.
Also from specialized Oxford journals, this one focused on alcohol, where Teyssen, González-Calero, Korn, and Singer (1997) found that “alcoholic beverages produced by fermentation but not those produced by alcoholic fermentation plus distillation are powerful stimulants of GAO.” That’s Gastric Acid Output, in a study that focused on anesthetized rats. What’s good for rats, science tells us, is probably good for humans as well.
In between science and hearsay, there’s a lot of folklore and received wisdom on the subject of digestives. Who doesn’t love the idea of medieval tipler monks, like Shakespeare‘s Friar Lawrence, curating their herb gardens and concocting potions. My current favorite medieval physician is Arnaldus de Villanova, who saw alcohol as a cure-all, good for fever, plague, sores on the head, yellow jaundice, dropsy, pain in the breast, gout, diseases of the bladder and the “bites of mad dogs.” Alcohol, he believed, promoted courage (see Anthony Quayle as Falstaff) and improved memory. For stuff that strong, indigestion would have been a walk in the park.
In Italy, as Eric Asimov reports in The New York Times, the digestives are bitter. In restaurants and osterie, when you are stuffed and happy, it’s not uncommon to be asked if you would like an amaro. If you would like to feel less stuffed and more happy, you say yes. Common bitters commercially marketed include Cynar, made with an artichoke base, Averna, whose ingredients (the recipe is top secret) are said to include herbs, roots, and citrus, and Centerbe (one hundred herbs). My wife’s uncle swore by Fernet Branca. In San Marino, where she’s from, they make a truffle-based digestivo called Tilus.
Often restaurants have their own hooch. Usually they are dark in color; the darker the better, though at Trattoria Pacini, in Montebello, we’ve eased out the door after sipping their home-made herbal digestivo, which is light in color.
“We’ll need alcohol,” my wife says. And, of course, a jug, preferably clear, so we can watch the progress of our work. Nocino, like most bitters, is an infusion, a fermented beverage like the one served to the anesthetized rats above. While she looks at recipes, I locate 150 proof grain alcohol at, of all places, a local Mobil gas station, a conglomerate establishment that sells Tim Horton donuts, will wash your car, has a stock broker in the back room and an impressive assortment of fine wines instead of fan belts, oil filters, and washer solvent.
Twenty black walnuts, washed, cracked open, and chopped; lemon peel, cloves, cinnamon, and grain alcohol. My question is how those green golf balls are transmuted into a thick dark, nearly black liqueur.
The magic begins almost immediately. The clear grain alcohol (looks like gasoline) begins to discolor. The process will take months, requiring occasional stirring and agitation. There will be straining and filtering in the future, and sugar to be added.
“When hers was ready to drink,” my wife says, “Zia Angela always harvested the fermented nuts from the vat and added them to white wine, making a kind of vermouth.”
I’m up for that, too. Why not?
All of this reminds me of my Chekhov, a scene in The Cherry Orchard. Of course, the characters are standing around talking, bewildered and melancholy, struggling to cope with a changing world. At this moment, they’re reckoning with the impending sale of the orchard, the end of the old order. Firs Nikolayevitch, the elderly buttler to the Ranevsky family, says,
“In the old days, forty or fifty years ago, they used to dry the cherries, soak them, pickle them, make jam too. They used to send the preserved cherries to Moscow and Harkov by the wagon-load. The preserved cherries then were soft and juicy, sweet and fragrant. They knew the way to do them.” When Firs is asked, Where is the recipe now? He answers, “‘It’s forgotten. Nobody remembers it.'”
For some time now, I’ve been mindful of the loss of craft, of arts, of local knowledge. Like the Chekhov character, I sometimes find myself standing among the trees, pondering the end of things. Nocino is a memory project. Our daughter and her boys are involved. Can they have a taste, the little ones ask, when it’s ready? Yes, they can. Will it taste good? To them, probably not. To me possibly not. Will it actually help with digestion? That’s anyone’s guess. I have my doubts. But it’s the remembering that counts, the perpetuation of the art. Six months from now, when we filter and decant (saving the fruit for the white wine), I can’t imagine there being nocino regret.