Almond processing in El Maestrat

Its that time of year again when the mountains become festooned with striking swathes of pink almond blossoms in various hues. The darker more vibrant pinks are of the marcona variety, the most prized of almonds locally, but also the most difficult to grow I am told.

It has been so dry since last July that the landscape is scorched and the vibrant pinks look strangely alien against the grey hills. Green definitely looks better with pink.

For the past 15 months I have been heating my masia by means of a biomass boiler fueled by almond shells. These come from Frusema in Albocasser, a substantial almond processing plant, run by the inestimable Lola and her husband. I spoke to her about the proliferating press these days on the health properties of almonds. She invited me to come down and take photos.

I arrived mid morning and it was as grey as Liverpool. A huge lorry was unloading in the forecourt. It looked foreboding. Worth a shot. Lola took me around the indoor premises and I have to say I did not understand a great deal she said. This was not because of my Spanish, but due to the NOISE. Unrelenting. Everyone else but she and I sported giant earmuffs. For 40 minutes my thoughts were drowned by the hailing of almonds rushing like thunderbolts through the various pipes, emerging briefly and then going on to God knows where.

It’s not very interesting, Lola said more than once. But I did not agree. For starters I did not realize how much sophisticated machinery was available for shelling almonds. The juxtaposition of local women sitting in an isolated room at moving conveyors belts sorting out the wheat from the chaff was fascinating. It was East meets West, sort of.

It is clear that almond preparation is quite labour-intensive, as much as the tending of the actual trees is. No wonder almonds are so expensive in most of the world. Here they practically throw them at you in the bars. That is because the farmers get “peanuts” for them, which is why many are going back to winemaking. Often they do not even bother to harvest the almonds due to the low returns.

As one local told me, it is only the processing plants that make the money, but I wonder. There is all this state-of-the –art equipment to pay for, not to mention the weekly wage slips of 28 employees to meet. To keep the business flowing throughout the year, Frusema buys in from around Spain. The loads are stored in huge metal barns waiting the moment that local produce dries up.

After putting Lola through a few loops, I left her bending over the almond tables with the ladies, shifting out the bad boys. Once in a while she picked up an almond and munched on it absentmindedly. She actually did this throughout the shoot and I had to ask her not to, not unless she wanted to look like a cud-chewing cow!

Although she has probably eaten them everyday of her adult life, Lola still likes almonds. This striking woman gives the aura of a calm, but firm person in robust health. Her clear turquoise eyes and strong Spanish skin speak clearly of the “almond diet” benefits.

I on the other hand, we both agreed, would not be a suitable candidate for working in an almond factory. By the end of 30 minutes my eyes had begun to itch and welts developed at the base of my neck. A micro-fine brown layer of almond dust clung persistently to my camera and clothes like powdered sugar.

When I got home I cleaned my equipment, washed my clothes, and had a long shower (naughty being off-grid), but it did not help. As the afternoon progressed the itching got worse and I woke up the next morning covered in angry eczema with swollen red eyes.

Last year I was diagnosed with a peach allergy. My doctor said it was likely that it was just the skin of the fruit, or any other in the same family. I did not think about it much at the time, not being a great consumer of peaches. But now a bell rung and I looked peaches up in Wikipedia. Of course, wouldn’t you know it? The humble almond is a relative and I was literally sprayed with its pulverised shell for 40 minutes!

On my finca I have mostly the common type of almond
On my finca I have mostly the common type of almond

For more about Frusema, its eco stance and to buy products, please visit their website here!

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