It is almost midsummer, the magic date around which green or wet walnuts (from the walnut tree Juglans regia) must be picked. If you want to pickle or preserve them, or soak them in wine to make vin de noix (or walnut vinegar, depending on how it goes), you’ll need them to be soft enough to cut into pieces or pierce. By late June or July, it is more likely that the shells will be beginning to harden inside the green outer shell making this much more difficult. When they are in their perfect state, you’ll be able to get a needle or a knife through them relatively easily, and inside you’ll see the nut, translucently gelatinous at this stage, just beginning to form inside the bright white pith.
Last June, we were lucky enough to be in a friend’s house in the Provencal hills. Every country road seemed to be lined with walnut trees groaning with fat green fruit, so we set to work, picking enough to try three experiments based on classic wet-walnut recipes from different parts of Europe: French vin de noix; English pickled walnuts; and Greek walnut spoon sweets (γλυκό καρύδι). It seemed important to include something Greek. Caryatids – the woman-shaped pillars seen holding up many a Greek temple – are the nymphs of Carya, who was turned into a walnut tree (karya in Greek) by Dionysus, thwarted in his love for her by her sisters (it could have been much worse: he turned her sisters into stones). The changeable walnut, delicious and varied, seems to me the perfect nut to remind us of Dionysus, master of disguise and lord of pleasure and misrule.
One thing to remember if trying any recipe with green walnuts: WEAR GLOVES. Picking them won’t stain your hands, but as soon as you start to bruise or scrape them in any way their juice will invisibly penetrate your skin and nails tattooing them dark brown or black. It doesn’t wash off. It will take weeks for it to gradually wear off as your skin replaces itself. It will also stain porous work surfaces, so cover those too. You have been warned…
Make this delicious drink in late June or early July, when the walnuts are green and still soft enough to pierce, and start to enjoy it in September when it has macerated for long enough. Remember to wear gloves: the walnuts will stain your hands and surfaces at all stages.
2.5 litres red wine
0.5 litres eau de vie (or any high-proof alcohol: vodka, run, tequila, brandy)
12 large or 15 small green walnuts450g sugar, white or demerara
1 vanilla pod
2 or 3 walnut leaves
Large wide-necked jars with a capacity of up to 4 litres
Put on the gloves. Depending on the width of the necks of your bottles and the size of your walnuts, pierce them all the way through with a thick needle or chop them into quarters. Divide them equally between the jars and add the sugar, the wine, the eau de vie, the vanilla pod, and the walnut leaves if using.
Seal the jars, shake well, and store in a dark cool place for 40-60 days. Shake the jars occasionally during this time.
When you are ready to taste, strain the vin de noix into a clean bottle or decanter. Many people suggest straining all of it on the 60th day, but I have kept it for a year in its soaking state and it remains delicious. Serve in place of a dessert wine with cake-based puddings, or mixed with a little soda or lemonade as an unusual aperitif.