Green walnuts, or underripe walnuts in the husk, are used in all manner of traditional recipes. Anywhere walnuts grow, you can bet you’ll find green walnut recipes.
Green walnuts are the unripe fruit of trees in the Juglans genus, namely black walnuts, Persian walnuts, and even the butternuts native to the eastern US. They all have a bright spiced citrus scent early on in their development.
At this stage, the outer husk is firm and fragrant, and the inner nutshell hasn’t yet hardened. The nut itself is soft and nearly liquid in the shell, and it’ll dissolve in alcohol over time. The flavor of the green nut, combined with the warm spiced citrus scent of the husk infuses into alcohol to create a really unforgettable drink.
(Though green walnuts are also used to make condiments, pickles, sweets, and preserves of all kinds, as I’ll get to in a minute.)
The tradition of harvesting green walnuts goes all the way back to antiquity, and some of the earliest records document their use during the Roman occupation of Celtic lands in what is present-day Brittan and Scotland (around 300 BC).
As the story goes, early Celtic tribes would send barefoot virgins into the walnut groves to harvest unripe walnuts on the solstice each year. The nuts would be steeped in alcohol, likely mead or wine, to macerate for 6 months until the winter solstice.
The idea is was that something pure and green, harvested at a time when the sun’s energies were at their fullest, by the purest of souls, could ward off evil during the darkest night of the year.
The tradition has since been co-opted by many modern cultures and changed to coincide with Christian holidays instead of pagan ones.
These days, the traditional harvest day is June 24th (or St. John’s Day) and the resulting alcohol is consumed on Christmas. They’re still gathered barefoot, and ideally by young girls…so the tradition (and recipes) have remained largely the same through the middle ages and into the modern era.
Christian or Pagan, the result is no less delicious today.
Generally, the nuts are about the size of a ping pong ball in late June, but here in Vermont summer arrives a bit later. They’re a bit bigger than almonds, and we’ll have to wait until roughly July 10-ish for full-sized green walnuts.
A summer thunderstorm on the solstice knocked down a pretty sizable harvest from this stand of black walnuts, and even at this stage, they’re still perfect for infusing into liqueur.
I put on my favorite dress, and my 6-year-old pixie of a daughter slipped on hers and we went barefoot into the black walnut grove harvesting green walnuts together.
Rituals or not, shoes off actually really helps when foraging green walnuts. More often than not you find these with your feet, and removing them intentionally is a good way to prevent a turned ankle when you find one by accident later. Feel free to keep your shoes on if the grass is mowed very short under the trees, which it may well be these days, but wasn’t back in the days before lawnmowers.
(They’re small, but we’ll go back in a few weeks for larger green walnuts to make green walnut preserves since that requires a specific size to work properly.)
Green Walnut Recipes
Once you’ve harvested green walnuts, either off the tree or windfalls from the ground, take a moment to smell their intense scent. It’s a bit resinous, like pine needles or bay leaves, and it’s also got a bit of warm spice like nutmeg or allspice. Along with that fragrant spice comes notes of citrus, that’s not quite lemon or orange, but something different altogether.
I brought my harvest home and found a new foraging book waiting for me on my doorstep. I’d preordered Forager Chef’s Book of Flora by Alan Bergo, one of my favorite foraging writers. It happened to arrive while I was out collecting green walnuts, and the timing couldn’t have been better.
It has quite a few recipes using green walnuts, along with all manner of other tasty wild edibles. He has a good-sized section on acorn flour and acorn recipes, wild rice, wild greens, seasonings, and just about everything under the sun. What I love about his work is that it often incorporates the really unique and fun-to-find wild foods, like unripe walnuts.
I immediately got to slicing my little beauties and started a batch of Vin de Niox, which is a french recipe for black walnuts infused in wine, along with other complementary aromatics like citrus zest and spices.
While that may be one of the simplest recipes, it’s definitely not the only thing to make with unripe walnuts.
Nocino (Italian Green Walnut Liqueur)
Perhaps the best-known green walnut recipe, nocino is an Italian liqueur made with green walnuts.
My friend Teri at Homestead Honey does a lot of work with walnut trees. They make black walnut cutting boards for their Etsy shop, and they even tap their black walnut trees for syrup in the spring. Her recipe for nocino is adapted from the book Preserving Wild Foods. She starts by steeping green walnuts in vodka along with cinnamon, anise, and a lemon.
The infusion is left to steep for a few months, then strained and sweetened with simple syrup. It’s then left to mature again for a few more months, so it’s ready just in time for Christmas about 6 months after the first green walnut harvest.
Vin de Niox (French Green Walnut Wine)
While the concept of Vin de Niox is similar to Nocino, the result is very different. Instead of steeping green walnuts in vodka or a neutral spirit, they’re steeped in red wine. The spices are similar, often including citrus, cinnamon, and other aromatics.
I’m getting mine started with a really spectacular bottle from nakedwines.com, and using the recipe from Forager Chefs Book of Flora which includes lovely aromatics to compliment the green walnuts. For that recipe, you’ll have to check out the book, and it’s a great read if you’re at all interested in cooking with wild food.
For a generic recipe, here are the basics of making Vin de Niox.
Green Walnut Jam
In Southern Europe, the Greeks and Romanians tend to skip the liqueur and preserve green walnuts in syrup. It’s often called green walnut jam, but it’s not exactly a “jam” that you’d spread on toast.
The green walnuts are soaked in syrup until they’re candied, and the syrup takes on their lovely flavor. The trick is though, for this preserve the green walnuts are peeled with a sharp knife that removes some of the outer husk, leaving just the soft inner “shell” that hasn’t quite formed yet and the unformed nutmeat.
I happen to have quite a bit of pickling lime on hand from when we were experimenting with preserving eggs in lime water (which works really well by the way, and will keep them fresh for over a year). Once I’m able to pick larger green walnuts in a few weeks I’m going to give this a try.
(Note that the walnuts need to be bigger for this recipe, about the size of a ping pong ball, since they need to be peeled, and the ratio of outer husk to the inner nut is important to this preserve. If you have tiny almond-sized green walnuts, go with a liqueur instead.)
Green Walnut Syrup (Sciroppo di Noci Verdi)
Inspired by nocino, Italian green walnut syrup known as Sciroppo di Noci Verdi is basically just green walnuts soaked in simple syrup and then strained. The syrup is kept and used as a topping for all manner of things, including ice cream.
Traditionally, Nocino liqueur is also used as an ice cream topping, so it’s basically just the same thing but without the alcohol.
If you’re curious how it tastes, you can buy an imported bottle, but the price is pretty steep.
Pickled Green Walnuts
Green walnut pickles are a British thing, and by all accounts, they’re an acquired taste that has a very unique texture.
They’re savory and good with meats, but not commonly eaten outside of the British Isles. Hank Shaw has a recipe for pickled green walnuts, and he describes them as “Fairly soft, puckery and strangely floral. And yes, there was definitely a Worcestershire-Heinz 57-A1-thing going on here.”
Green Walnut Ketchup
A bit like pickled green walnuts, green walnut ketchup is a condiment that’s a bit like Worcestershire Sauce or steak sauce. These days the word “ketchup” always conjures up images of a sweet ketchup dipping sauce for fries, but it used to be a generic term. There is also mushroom ketchup and all manner of non-tomato ketchup varieties.
This one is traditionally made in Scottland, and hank shaw also has a Green Walnut Ketchup recipe if you’d like to give it a try.
Looking for more seasonal foraging guides?
- 50+ Edible Wild Fruits and Berries ~ A Forager’s Guide
- 50+ Ways to Use Yarrow
- 20+ Edible Weeds in Your Garden
- 40+ Wild Foods You Can Make Into Flour