When I was very young, and slabs were cut from my mother’s home-made Christmas cake to be divided into fingers, I’d always get the outside finger, with marzipan not only on top, but running down the length of one side.
My appreciation of soft, fresh marzipan hasn’t staled in adulthood. In Spain, I discovered ‘turrón’, a Christmas sweetmeat invented by Moors (who have a taste for all things sweet) 500 years ago in Jijona, a village 48km north of Alicante.
Turrón de Jijona is my fancy; it’s soft and must, by law, contain at least 60% almonds, along with local honey and egg white to bind it. Turrón de Alicante is hard, and contains 64% almonds. Both are sold in cellophane-wrapped blocks, the shape of a medium-fat, paperback. With the Jijona turrón, one can see the almond oil inside.
Almonds are the essence of marzipan. I like to eat them ‘raw’ too. They are much appreciated for their health quality and used in milk, butter and cosmetics. All the better for my brother, who has an almond farm in Andalucía and has arrived to holiday in West Cork bringing us a couple of kilos of the crop.
We break the shells with a small hammer: this was how it was done before mechanisation. Old photographs show lines of women in black shawls and long dresses working away with little hammers cracking almonds, dawn to dusk. Mechanisation is wonderful, of course, but thousands of women all over Spain must have lost their jobs when it came in — and, who knows, but they might have enjoyed not only the income, but a chance to chat and joke, and move about to spend every hour of the day working away alongside different companions. Funnily enough, the wealthy buyer who comes to my brother’s farm still uses a small hammer to crack the nuts.
Incidentally, thousands of men all over the almond-growing regions of the Mediterranean must also have lost their jobs beating the trees with sticks. This was the harvesting method then. Now, the trees are shaken by mechanical arms mounted on a tractor, and fall into a large umbrella, affixed to the tree trunk, each in turn. From the umbrella, the almonds are mechanically fed into a machine which removes the green, velvety outer ‘hull’, but not the shell.
The almonds in their shells are then spread out, ankle deep on a hard surface, to dry in the hot Andalucía sun —temperatures when my brother was harvesting a couple of weeks ago were 40C, so there was no problem with drying. Nevertheless, the workers walk through them now and then, each time from a different direction, raising parallel furrows so that the carpet of shells looks like a ploughed field.
When they are dry, the buyer arrives, an elegant gent climbing out of his BMW and, after the ritual handshakes and the ‘mucho gustos’ and ‘encantados’, sends his man off to collect random handfuls from the almond carpet to make up a carefully weighed kilo of the crop. He, the ‘jefe’, then cracks the almonds on a stone, nut by nut, and carefully, under the farmer’s watchful eye, weighs the nuts.
In the crop from the 4,000 trees of Guara and Lauren varieties grown by my brother, the nut will constitute about 34% of the weight. The buyer will then check the humidity, which should be 6.5%: obviously, he doesn’t want to buy water.
This done, a per-kilo price is negotiated, and all of the almonds are top-loaded by mechanical shovel into a large enclosed truck, first weighed empty, then weighed again, loaded with almonds. The elegant gent pays up and moves on to the next farm. The stripped hulls make animal feed, the shells, ground down, make animal bedding.
Almonds have a distinct advantage as a crop: they can be stored for two years and don’t spoil in transit. The brother grew soft fruit when he first bought the land and, on fortunate years, produced the premium, second-earliest peaches to hit supermarket shelves in Europe. On a good year, the farm would harvest 75 tons of peaches; 90 tons of plums, 50 of nectarines, 15 of apricots and 30 of olives. There were bad years too, when hail storms unseasonably swept the Andalucian plains and pockmarked peaches, nectarines and olives, rendering them unsaleable.
This, after the cost of 50-strong work gangs hired, first, to thin out the trees to let the sun get at the fruit, and then to pick the crop; no shaking for peaches. Clearly, almonds are a better friend altogether!
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