A little guide to harvesting your own almonds
I have been meaning to write about the almond harvest for some time and now that it is looming up I am! In the meantime I’ve collected an interesting set of photos while trying to munch my way through hundreds of kilos of wild almonds. To be honest, I can’t give them away. But more about that later.
Along with my finca I inherited 141 sorry unkempt almond trees . In my wild romantic excitement I planted 50 more. That was before I discovered how high maintenance almonds trees are. This species is subject to disease, is not particularly long-lived in comparison to, say olive trees, and are very susceptible to the vagaries of spring weather. For instance, as the flowers come first, often they bloom early in a burst of temperate weather and buzzing bees – then follows a cruel frost that kills the early fruiting ovules.
Of the 50 almonds I planted, not one has put on more than 2 feet, and they were small to start with so should have done. In the meantime a number of wild trees have sprouted around my finca, rushed to the skies, and then… expired. Their almonds were bitter, laced with cyanide and therefore poisonous. One would not kill you, they taste like sugarless marzipan, but just four can put paid to your dog.
I pruned the old trees, and then an expert did this again two years ago. They are better but I fear will never be beauties. Despite this, my amateur “farm” produces in all between 200 and 500 kilos husked almonds a year. More than I, family and friends can eat. And at 80 centimos the kilo shelled in a normal year, they are not worth selling.
Depending on the weather, an almond crop hereabouts is ready to pick around the end of September to maximum end of October. You know when the time is right as the husks split and lose a bit or all of their green colour. Harvesting is easy enough but a bit tedious (sorry!). Early to mid morning, depending on the ground humidity, you place overlapping nets around the trees so that there are no gaps. Then, taking a long robust stick, which you can buy from the cooperative in several lengths, you beat the poor trees to death wherever you see almonds so that they tumble to the ground, along with leaves and branch ends and sometimes more than that. People here keep their trees fairly low as they are easier to strip, unlike mine below.
Gathering up the corners of the nets to make a funnel, you pour the fruit into crates, picking out the larger branches as you go, not for the mills, but so that you do not run out of crates. lol.
The fun part is a break for desayuno. Breakfast. Everyone pulls out their contributions, sets them on a make shift table and squats on stones, your jacket, or something. Usually a crate actually. Always there is an ample amount of young fresh red wine. Also homemade bread, ham, cheese, olives, maybe a tortilla, ended with black coffee. That’s about it. A feast, and one I try to prolong. Guess why? Actually, maybe don’t. But eat your heart out Besos. This simple pleasure you will never know.
By about 2 pm depending on start time, that is it for the day. Usually my trees take 2 days. Beating the trees or not, these are considered hand-picked almonds, not that the local mill gives a damn. Neither that they are wild and totally organic.
But the story is not over because now you have crates and crates of almonds with husks. The husks have to removed and can you believe my neighbours Felix and Merce actually do this by hand! It takes many more hours than the beating of the trees, desayuno included. Lucky for me my friend the iron monger Miguel had an old broken shelling machine someone dumped on him that he fixed. His work yard is a cornucopia of such wonders. He did the job with me in about two hours. Actually he did it and I watched.
Job done! Actually no. Now you have the almonds with their inner shells and they have to be dried. As ready as they were to be picked, the fruit inside these two layers is wet-ish. It doesn’t taste good (I tried it) and the mills will not take it – more of that later. You ideally need a massive concrete floor, i.e. a garage, and you need to spread the almonds out on it and move them around with your feet for at least a week. An almond “wine treading, as it were”. I did not have a huge concrete floor so spread them on my nets as per this photo. Sod’s law it rained that night and my intentions became quite literally a washout. Haha. Actually not so haha, but I persevered.
Putting the almonds back in their crates I stacked them in my boiler room and shook them up all winter. The heat did the job. The next year I emptied my garden room and threw the next crop in there, myself squirming, slipping and sliding around the mounds of almonds every day to give each one its turn to dry out. I considered it a work-out.
This was the year I decided to sell as I had the last year’s crop as well. Luckily it was also THE year that there was a country wide shortage of almonds, solely because the Californian almond crop had failed for what ever reason. I was offered the king’s ransom of 4.80 euros a kilo. Very exciting, but not after I realised what that actually meant.
I stuffed my car with bulging bags. I took it to the mill in my village. The whole car with contents and without was weighed. A simple mathematical equation. Then I tossed the almonds into some machine at ground level that filtered out all the leaves and branches (of which there were none). Somewhere along its underground voyage the almonds were shelled completely and deposited in containers peeled. But before this, while the almonds were being poured into this spinning machine, the man, while lucking at me suspiciously, randomly took ladles of almonds from each bag and threw them in a bucket at the side.
Harvest disposed of, he lead me down a dark passage and up to a small room, bucket in hand. There we manually cracked the shells until we had half a kilo of raw almonds. Also the shells were weighed. Then that half a kilo of fruit was passed through a small somewhat primitive looking contraption that stated what its percentage of water was. Mine was 100% dry. Very good news. Unfortunately, my almonds weighed very little compared to my shells. They were wild, and small, and tough.
So I ended up with a small fraction of the listed price, not realising that the 4.8€ would be re-factored by the percentage of raw almonds to shells. All in all it was 114 euros for 600 kilos. I paid more than that to my help.
The next year I considered, briefly, doing what another neighbour does – knocking the almonds to the ground and leaving them to the dogs or wild boar or whatever. You see you should never leave almonds on an almond tree as it saps its strength. And selling them to the mills saps ours… but I still harvest them. For us. Anyone want some almonds? Organic, small and tasty!
To see more almond related photos occasionally updated please click here
To read about the almond processing plant in Albocasser please click here