27 Sept 2016

29. Almonds

If almonds were not called almonds they would be called by another name that would sound the same. Almond, amande, almendra, mandorla, amendoa … A nut that is exotic and desirable, pure white when stripped of its coverings, sweet but sometimes bitter, capable of killing – a femme fatal of nuts. Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern. North African, too. But not of the cold northern climes: she leaves those to the oily walnut and the hazel.

High on the dry southern slopes of El Hierro the almond trees are the first, with their cousins the apricots and the nectarines, to blossom. Sometimes as early, individual teasers, as New Year’s Eve, but normally in February, and thousands of almond trees dress El Pinar in white and pink.

A snowfall of petals from almond trees. They blossom before the leaves appear.
These trees were once essential to the subsistence economy of the area but today the harvesting of almonds seems to be undertaken only by romantic old traditionalists: shelled almonds from California are bigger and quite cheap in the supermarkets. But what can you expect, a cake or praline made with your own almonds tastes so much better – I’ll swear to that!

Beating the almonds from the tree.

The almond tree doesn’t give up her precious fruit so easily. The almonds are about ready for harvesting in September when the husks start splitting open like clams to reveal what remained hidden for so long. Of course, you could spend all month gently picking the fruit one by one, but she likes to be beaten with long sticks. This causes a shower of hard green lumps the size of big plums to pelter the children gathering them off the ground underneath and, at the same time, prunes the tree of dry and dead twigs. Next the husks have to be prized off the hard shell of the nut – if it’s too early they stick and if it’s too late they are too hard and dry. 
Even my little grandaughter does her bit. Although
she prefers shelling the nuts to husking them as
she is doing here.

Then the nuts in their shells have to be dried in the sun to avoid fungus during storage. Later, when you want to use them you have to crack open the hard shell without breaking the kernel inside. The little girl in the photo does it perfectly every time – except when she wants to eat one! Finally, most recipes call for blanched almonds stripped of the brown skin that covers the kernel. You do that by putting them in boiling water and then taking each skin off one by one. 

Curiously I know of no specifically local recipe that uses almonds predominantly. But if you're in Valverde go to the people that make "quesadillas". They make some spectacular "almendradas" - almond cakes similar to those coconut ones we all know but incredibly better.

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