OUR FRUIT - The almond tree (prunus dulcis)
The almond tree is part of the Rosaceae family, like apple trees, peach trees and numerous fruit species. Flowering is amongst the very first of the year, as early as February.
It originates from the plateaus and mountains of West Asia. It has been cultivated in Iran for 5,000 or 6,000 years. It was introduced in Egypt by the Hebrews and in Europe by the Greeks. The Romans called it "Greek nut." The almond tree was introduced in the South of France in the 5th century B.C. In the Middle Ages when almonds were widely consumed.
The almond tree is undemanding, although it does require sun and dry air. Traditionally, it is the king of very dry land in the summer, alongside the olive tree. It can rarely produce fruits in a cold area because of its early flowering, which is very sensitive to frost. The orchards are mostly found in Northwest Mediterranean countries, where weather is more conducive to production.
The almond tree is usually self-unfruitful, i.e. it cannot self-pollinate. It is therefore essential for fructification to plant several varieties in the same orchard.
In botanical terms, the shelled almond we eat is the pit of the actual fruit, which is not edible and called drupe. The shelled almond is protected by the shell, which is itself covered with a tough, velvety husk, green before maturity and greying afterwards.
Almonds are fully formed from mid-June - the green almond period. Afterwards, the shell continues to harden, the almond reaches its full maturity and dries out. In late August, the husk opens up, which signals harvest time.
During the natural cycle of the almond tree, the shell is extremely useful because it protects the nut perfectly from air and light and allows it to preserve all of its germination abilities.
Sweet or bitter almonds ?
It's a matter of variety.
In a population of almond trees originating from seedlings, you will find a wide array of fruits of all shapes, sizes and tastes. It varies from the sweetest to the most bitter, which is inedible. The taste of the bitter almond indicates the presence of hydrogen cyanide, an extremely toxic substance also found in apricot pits and apple seeds.
For cooking, this taste is used in amaretti and marzipan, where the bitter almond is a small part of the ingredients. As a general rule, however, bitter almonds should not be eaten because they can be highly toxic when exceeding a certain dose.
In the wild, birds and rodents ignore bitter almonds, allowing them to make it through the winter on the trees. No need to panic if you mistakenly bite into one, it just played its role by signaling that it is toxic.
The selected varieties disseminated by grafting almond are free of hydrogen cyanide. In an orchard originating from seedlings, it is very important to properly identify bitter almond trees and eliminate or graft them or not pick their fruits, because nothing if not tasting differentiates them from sweet almonds.
Location of our orchards
In Corsica, the old planting area, where trees were often grown from seeds, widely spaced on the slopes of Balagne, suffered from abandonment and fires. Even more than the olive tree, the almond tree has disappeared to be replaced by scrub.
Still, Corsica is the first region in France to produce almonds.
Almond trees, like many crops, were brought down to lands that were accessible to tractors. They are generally found in lower-value land, where citrus fruits do not grow well. Contrary to the hazelnut tree, almond trees shy away from the sides of streams and other wet soils in winter.
In Corsica as in most regions, the cultivation of almond trees has restarted on new bases: choice of recent grafted varieties and moderate watering limiting the fall of smaller fruits after setting.
Three producers produce our almonds in the Nebbiu and Balagne regions, in Northwest Corsica.
Of course, we have not a single bitter almond, since all of the trees are grafted varieties.
FeragnÈs : large almond with an easy-to-break shell and a delicate and sweet taste
Lauranne : smaller almond with an easy-to-break shell
Ferraduel : large almond with a hard shell and a subtle taste. My personal favourite.
The cultivation of almond trees is often associated with the breeding of dairy ewes, which graze under the trees part of the year.
In organic farming, the orchard is balanced and does not require treatment for aphids, red spiders and leafhoppers, whose development is naturally regulated by useful insects.
A light maintenance pruning is done on the trees. Irrigation begins from spring, when the lack of rainfall becomes prevalent and continues until the full maturity of the almond nut.
The mature almonds cling by the husk and are taken down. The trees are harvested one at a time in order to properly separate the varieties.
The swiftness of harvesting is often crucial for a successful year: indeed, in case of rain, the tannins contained in the husk stain the shell. Towards the end of winter, the shell of the almonds left on the trees has blackened. Even though the colour of the shell does not affect the quality of the almond nut, dark-shell almonds are more difficult to sell.
The earlier the almonds are harvested and stored, the lighter their shells will be. Some years, the harvest is a race against the storms !
Every day, almonds are brought in and spread out on the ground. The varieties may be separated (this means that each row of almond tree should be planted with a single variety, which is not always the case).
The almonds finish drying at room temperature.
Once harvesting is completed, the almonds are husked (the husks left clinging on the shells are removed) and marketing may begin.
Come September, the air is cooler and the dry fruits can once again be enjoyed.
Our entire harvest is sold in shells.
We voluntarily chose to specialize in the sale of unshelled almonds: the cost of cracking (purchasing a cracking unit + labour or subcontracting to the mainland) is a burden. Given the price of imported shelled almonds, it would be impossible to totally pass it on to the sale price and maintain the producers' level of pay.
Tasting our almonds requires time and patience to enjoy the nuts! However, the shell remains the best protection to preserve their taste and properties.
Almonds have outstanding nutritional values.
As a type of nut, its most widely-known property is its oil-richness (50%), with a strong unsaturated fatty acids content. It is a very high-energy food.
It is also very high in vegetable proteins: 20%, which is comparable to meat.
It is rich in fibres, vitamins and mineral salts.
Amongst other dry fruits, almonds are those that can be kept longest because of their high monounsaturated fatty acid content. Unshelled, they keep perfectly year after year, which means they can be eaten year-round.
A FEW STORAGE TIPS:
All dry fruits are better kept in shells, which keeps the nut intact and protects it from light and air, both oxidizing agents.
They should be stored away from humidity and rodents in a cool and dry place.
The almond is a simple and delicious food. It has its place in the kitchen as a dessert, in a fruit basket that should always contain dry fruit and a nut-cracker to nibble daily on a few dry fruits.
A few almonds can also be shelled and soaked overnight. They will be fresh, crunchy and delicious the next morning at breakfast.
The almond is also used for cooking and baking, in a spreadable paste and as a drink (almond milk), a substitute to cow milk.
ALMONDS AND LOVE
According to Greek mythology, Demophon, son of Theseus, abandoned Phyllis to go to war. Mad with grief, Phyllis killed herself and turned into an almond tree. Upon his return, consumed with sorrow, Demophon came back in tears and hugged the tree. Suddenly, the almond tree began flowering in all of its glory, with thousands of delicate blossoms.
The early flowering of an almond tree represents, for the ancient Greeks, maidenly love.
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