It’s snowing in the Algarve…

by Jane Page [email protected]

Until the pink and white blossoms of the almond trees fill the winter skies with the frivolous froth of an early spring, we hardly appreciate just how many almond trees there are in the Algarve.

Apart from those planted by farmers, there are tens of thousands that have sprouted from uneaten nuts and grown in the crevices of rock walls and in untilled fields.

However, to be frank, they never quite reach the level of looking like snow, which in legend apparently so much pleased Gilda, the northern princess of a Moorish prince, who was longing for the frozen wastes of her homeland.

Given the undeniable benefits of sunny Portugal over a cold, dark Scandinavian winter, that legend may be romantic but it is distinctly dubious.

The almond tree first raised its pink blossom to a blue sky somewhere in the Middle East.

The ever-hungry early people who tried the nuts (which are, botanically speaking, not nuts but seeds from the same family as the plum and the cherry) would have hastily spat them out again as the original wild form is the bitter almond that contains glycoside amygdalin, which is converted into the highly poisonous prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) when it is crushed or chewed.  

Fortunately the change from bitter almond to sweet almond is brought about by a fairly common natural mutation and would probably have been accompanied by a change to white flowers as well, encouraging people to tentatively taste the almonds again.

It is interesting to see the spread of misinformation on the internet of pink versus white for sweet and bitter almonds, perhaps due to pink being such a ‘girly, sweet’ colour, but the truth is that bitter almonds are borne on trees with markedly pinker blossoms than those of the white flowered sweet almonds.

Perhaps it was domesticated animals that sniffed out the difference between the poisonous and the palatable varieties, but somehow the early people latched onto the wholesome varieties and raised new trees from seed.

It was probably one of the first fruit trees to be domesticated and almond shells have been found around Bronze Age sites dating from 3,000BC in the Near East. Tutankhamun took some with him into his tomb as an afterlife snack in Egypt around 1325BC – and he was wise to do so.

Whole almonds, eaten as a snack, have been shown to reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and other factors of heart disease, and to reduce the risk of cancer of the colon.

Although by that time Tutankhamun’s heart and intestines were stored in a separate pot from the body itself and unable to benefit.

In the kitchen

As traders in the Middle Ages carried almonds throughout Europe, they were eagerly introduced into medieval cookery. Surprisingly few people drank fresh milk as it went bad so quickly, and of course almond ‘milk’ could also be used during the very many fast days that prohibited eating flesh or fowl or anything pertaining to them.

Although there were always ways of getting round religious prohibitions; water-dwelling beavers counted as fish, and so did barnacle geese which were popularly supposed to hatch from barnacles instead of eggs.

At banquets on ‘fast’ days, fake eggs would be made by stuffing empty egg shells with a mixture of fish roe and almond milk.

In the 1700s Spanish monks took almond trees to California and started an industry that now amounts to 75% of the total worldwide production.

However, the huge number of trees involved – a monoculture covering miles and miles of Californian hillside – is causing some problems.

For a start, ‘colony collapse disorder disease’ is wiping out beehives. Researchers at the French Agricultural Institute believe that it is the monoculture itself that is a leading factor in causing the collapse of the beehives.

They have found that bees on a single-flower diet are much less healthy than their fellows on a mixed-flower diet.  Currently, a million beehives are trucked into California each year to pollinate the trees – but bee trucks do not have a good record.

Last year two trucks crashed, one in Utah and one in Idaho, releasing over 40 million bees to start a new life in the Midwest, and two trucks also crashed the year before. Perhaps the sound of the bees lulls the drivers to sleep?  

The reason that California almonds are so popular around the world is because they are the Nonpareil almond –  big and juicy and with an easily-cracked shell, but this also has its problems – destructive insects like the navel orange worm can bore through the shell.

They are now trying to cross the Nonpareil with the Tuono, which is smaller and has a shell that is harder to crack, but keeps out the insects.

The Tuono is also self-pollinating, which would save having to truck in the bee workers.  

Sweet almonds

Here in Portugal, we don’t have the problems of monoculture and our bees are in good condition.  Our almond trees are generally grown on dry soils, but a study carried out in Trás os Montes showed that if almond orchards are irrigated, then the crop doubles in size and reaches levels comparable with California’s orchards.

Almond trees were introduced here by Arab traders around 700AD, and almonds are the basis of many traditional sweets and pastries such as angels‘ breasts, abbot’s ears and nun’s bellies.  Apparently these were all invented in convents, but presumably the names were invented outside the walls.  

A Jewish recipe is to collect a jar full of white almond blossoms, pour vodka or a similar spirit over them and add a tablespoon of sugar.

Put the jar in a dark place for two weeks, then strain and sip.

Portugal has, of course, the famous sweet liqueur Amêndoa Amarga, also called Amarguinha, which is made using a proportion of bitter almonds.

Satisfyingly, one of Amália Rodrigues’ most bitter-sweet fado songs is called Amêndoa Amarga, based on the poem of that name by Ary dos Santos:

Por ti morro e ninguém sabe

mas eu espero o teu corpo que sabe a madrugada

o teu corpo que sabe a desespero

ó minha amarga amêndoa desejada.

I die for you and no-one knows,

But I await your body that tastes of the dawn

Your body that tastes of despair

Oh my longed-for bitter almond.