Last year I told you my tale of Nocino. If you haven’t eyed your nut tree for this year’s batch, then time is running short. June 24 is the day to gather nuts and get that jar settled in your sunny garden.
Speaking of trees, pictured above is an impressive specimen of a tree that could tell many tales. This is the English walnut tree from my childhood backyard. It has always been huge and impressive. That tree has been involved in my life in many ways. As kids, we were not allowed to go barefoot until the blossoms were on the walnut tree. With its broad arms, it was our favorite climbing tree. As we grew older, we could go ever higher into its secluded realms. This tree shaded countless picnics and family gatherings. I raked its leathery leaves many, many times. Its nuts provided food for generations of squirrels, and sometimes we even got some to eat. I built a contraption to strip the black husks off the ripened nuts to dry and shell them for my mother to bake cookies. One time we discovered a squirrel’s stash of nuts, and we had a bonanza of walnuts that winter. This tree is a symbol of strength and endurance. It’s just always been there with its heavy, long, horizontal limbs defying both age and gravity. If you fail to notice it or take it for granted, it will bump you on the head as a quick reminder of its seniority. It’s hard not to feel respectful of nature when looking at a tree like this. Naturally, it is where I go to get the nuts for my Nocino.
Just as this incredible walnut tree tells us so many things and inspires us to try to climb higher, I wanted to find a way to elevate my Nocino. I have always loved baklava for its sweet honey flavor, nuts, and subtle spicing. I wondered if it was possible to make a mead with these flavors. In 2008, I set about starting a mead experiment. The goal was to make drinkable baklava.
Our backyard bees had given us plenty of light, floral honey redolent of waxy comb and Spring blossoms. Perfect. I wanted to make this into a base mead with a rich, fruity depth while retaining the qualities of the honey. It was going to be sweet, so I also wanted to make it strong so the sweetness would be balanced. I needed some acid to keep it from being cloying. Fruit brings the acid balance, but selection of yeast is also important.
I selected the Lalvin 71B-1122 wine yeast for this mead. Per the manufacturer, this yeast was selected in Narbonne at the Institut National de Recherche en Agriculture (INRA) by J. Maugenet. The selection was designed to isolate yeasts that would produce a fruity yet fresh character in wine that would live long after fermentation. This yeast produces a smooth, rounded, fruity wine. It also metabolizes malic acid to give a pleasant fermentation character. I had used this yeast before for delicious dry, sparkling blackberry mead which came out like a luscious rosé. I knew it would give me the result I wanted for my baklava mead.
When I make mead, I generally have an idea of the starting specific gravity I would like to hit. I start with a little less volume than what I need, and then add more water or honey as needed. Honey can have a wide range of sugar content, so a volume or even a weight measure of the honey does not get the job done. I use a refractometer to measure the initial sugar content. You may also use a hydrometer, but you will need one that has a high range.
For the fruit component, I felt dried fruits would be best. I used four pounds of a medley of golden, red, and black raisins and two pounds of pitted dates. I added them to a gallon of dechlorinated water (use an activated charcoal filter), brought to a boil, and allowed to cool a bit. I put this into my sanitized primary fermentation bucket (Sanitize all equipment; it’s not as important as when making beer, but I use the same procedures as when I brew just to be on the safe side). Then, I just add water and honey as needed to hit my desired starting gravity. I was looking for 32 degrees Plato, or a specific gravity of 1.140. To hit this, it took about 18 pounds of honey (about 1-1/2 gallons) and 3-1/2 gallons of water. Mix well to make sure all of the honey is dissolved; usually not a problem. I added 2 whole cloves and a 1-inch piece of cinnamon stick to the fermenter to complement the spicing of the Nocino to be added later.
I added in 6.25 grams of a yeast nutrient called Go-Ferm to a cup of water. Honey lacks certain nutrients for a strong fermentation, and especially for high gravity meads, nutrients are advised. I put 10 grams of the dried 71B-1122 yeast in the cup of water to hydrate with the Go-Ferm. When the yeast blooms, it is added to the bucket. Pop on the lid, attach fermentation lock, and let it go. I ferment in my basement where the temperature is usually in the mid- to low 60F range. The fermentation starts in hours.
As soon as fermentation slows, rack into a glass carboy and continue the fermentation. I sample a little and take a gravity measurement with each racking. The first racking separates all the fruit, so it’s important to press the fruit a bit to extract all flavor. I taste some of the fruit to make sure its flavor is depleted and transferred into the fermenting must. It always feels a bit bad discarding the fruit, but it is spent.
As the fermentation progresses, rack a few more times until the mead is totally clear and brilliant. When racking, take care not to splash too much or the mead will get oxidized. Once the mead is clear, I add a 300 ml bottle of finished Nocino to the carboy. Rack and bottle.
This mead is a delicious dessert on its own, or it will pair nicely with molasses or chocolate desserts. I am partial to Shoo-Fly pie.
My 2008 version won a lot of awards when I entered it into competitions. Mostly I don’t waste it on judges to earn ribbons though. It’s a special occasion drink, and besides, I can always make more. And I have.