McGuan, our neighborhood wurstmacher at the San Diego restaurant The Linkery, emailed not long ago to say that he had collected a container full of peach pits for me. Unfurl that brow—this is hardly on par with saving last week’s Penny Saver or a clutch of candy bar wrappers. This was an actual favor, something that would have taken me a whole season of snarfing down cobblers, pies, crumbles, grunts, slumps, betties, smoothies, ice cream, and sangria. On a restaurant scale, however, such a collection of peach pits doesn’t take nearly as long. And, as they were destined for my house, they were wed with alcohol once they got here. Naturally.
Peach pits, also called stones and bunkers, have more value than might seem obvious at first blush. In a variety of forms—charred, split, still adhering to fruit flesh, fresh, dried, etc—they have long been added to moonshine, brandy, whiskey, and other distillates for the amber color and peachy-almond flavor they can impart.
Even more appealing are the kernels once those pits are cracked open. Peach kernels (noyaux in French) taste and even look a bit like small almonds. The smell strongly suggests both almond extract and fresh marzipan. That almond taste is readily surrendered to alcoholic solvents for a cordial with a decidedly old-fashioned taste of almonds and vanilla. Recipes for noyau, ratafia aux noyau, and crème de noyaux abound in older American household account books, recipe books, and homemade beverage collections where they almost always go by the French name. One still finds them in contemporary French cookbooks.
So, let’s make a batch!
Oh. Wait. Forgot something. Peach kernels, along with those of apricots, plums, cherries, and other members of the extensive family Rosacea, contain cyanogenic glycosides. Big whoop, you say, I need a drink, Pops, not a chemistry lesson. I hear you. Lord knows I’m not an environmental chemist, but those who know about such things say that on ingestion, these glycosides break down into prussic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide (HCN), a substance listed under Schedule 3 of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Right there, smack dab on your bar cart.
You might recognize hydrogen cyanide as the primary component of the German gas chamber extermination agent Zyklon B. So, no fooling, crème de noyaux carries an element of danger.
Now, do you want to make a batch? I do. In small doses, noyaux does not seem to have ill effect—New Orleans Creoles have reputations for many things, but regularly keeling over from cyanide poisoning with a cocktail glass in hand is not among them. As Erik Ellestad writes over at Underhill Lounge in regard to apricot kernels, “Please take anything I say here as simply conclusions and choices I have drawn for myself. Make your own choices and draw your own conclusions.” I couldn’t agree more.
From the 4th edition of Picayune’s Creole Cook Book (1910), here’s the original recipe and proportions for this old New Orleans classic:
Peach Kernel RatafiaA note on procedure: Peach pits are hard and cracking them takes some force. I use a hammer and rap the bunkers firmly on concrete outside until they split in half, then just pry out the kernels. Hammer the pits on a cutting board and you'll just deboss their images into the wood. I heard someone might have done that one time. If you like, put them in a towel before hitting to contain any flying bits, but controlled smacking should prevent peach shrapnel.
Ratafia aux Noyau de Peches ou d’Abricots
¼ pound each of peach or apricot kernels
4 pints of brandy
2 ½ pounds of sugar
2 pints of water
Pound the peach or apricot kernels – some also pound peach stones – steep them for one whole month in four pints of brandy in an earthen jar, and at the end of that time add a syrup made of two and a half pounds of sugar and 2 pints of water. Mix all well together, and then filter as directed above [sic: below], and bottle and seal, and keep in a cool, shady place.
Ratafia aux Noyau is one of the standing Creole drinks, that is most agreeable, the taste being of a delicate vanilla and almonds combined.
I cut the recipe in half (not for lack of brandy, but for the limited amount of kernels) and am macerating the crushed kernels and half their stones cracked and crushed into small bits in a brandy bottle. Come December, I'll add the syrup, let it mellow bit and see what we get. Here's hoping I don't take a big dirt nap...
Also from the same edition of Picayune’s Creole Cook Book:
How to Filter Cordials and Ratafias.
The filtering is of the utmost importance. A good home-made filter may be improvised by fitting pieces of felt into a funnel, very closely. Some use flannel, but the felt is far better. Filtering paper is sold by all druggists. Put the funnel in the mouth of the bottle, fit in the paper, pour in the mixture and let it filter slowly. Again, others use the ordinary brown or white paper, but this allows the aroma to evaporate, and the taste of the paper clings to the cordial. If you wish the cordial to be very transparent, take very dry, clear, transparent isinglass, and cut it very, very thin. Then dissolve it with white wine until it is perfectly liquid. Put it into bottles and preserve for use. When needed, coat the inside of the strainer with this, using a light brush or sponge. It will form a glue around the funnel. Pour the cordial or liqueur through this, straining several times, again and again, until it becomes perfectly transparent. Strain it the last time into bottles, and seal very tight. You will then have a clear, limpid cordial or liqueur that will not have lost its aroma by evaporation.
This simple method may be understood by even a child, and homemade cordials are not only very delightful, but far less expensive than the imported ones. Always have the Cognac as old as possible.
Goes well with:
- Erik Ellestad’s discussion of apricot kernels for his orgeat.
- Kenneth Barbalace’s Chemical Database entry on hydrogen cyanide.
- Wikipedia's description of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction
- Isinglass, called for in the filtering procedure above, is made of fish bladders and is widely available in homebrew stores since it's sometimes used by home brewers as a clearing agent for beers and wine.