When the almond trees are in blossom in Sicily, it is a glorious sight. Beginning in late January and through the early days of March, the cool green hills are bedecked in lacey blossoms in shades of pure white to delicate pink. The air is sweetly perfumed and bees are buzzing. It’s already spring.
On the other hand, the almond harvest takes place in the heat of summer, so forget cool and green, and think Dante’s Inferno. The August sun is fierce, the earth baked dry. Still, I wanted to experience the almond harvest, and Francesco Padova of the Mastri San Basilio farm, willingly obliged.
I am not sure why people who are not farmers often have a romantic idea of agriculture, and are prone to exclaiming “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to take part in the grape harvest! Or “ How wonderful to go olive picking!” Their enthusiasm quickly wanes once they are covered with mud, miserably damp, and have stiff fingers aching from the cold. Not once have I heard anyone thrill to the idea of almond picking, and now I know why.
I follow Francesco’s car to where his great-grandfather first farmed in the late 1800’s, near Ispica in southeastern Sicily. The hills are chalky and grey, looking nearly white in the harsh sunshine. Once we’ve parked along a quiet road, I open the door of my air-conditioned car to a blast of oven-hot air, and wonder what I’ve gotten myself into.
Francesco leads the way on foot up a steep rough track, through groves of almond trees that have already lost many of their leaves. Underfoot the finely tilled earth is soft but dry as a bone, and my shoes are soon covered in grey dust. Above my head, the outer husks of the almonds – which were once as plump as little peaches – have shriveled and split, and the precious almonds are protruding. It feels strangely sad and forlorn yet bountiful at the same time.
At the top of the hill, I am drenched in sweat, and glad to find a carob tree that provides some shade. Francesco leads me to an overlook that looks out onto an intensely cultivated landscape, where the bare fields are resting in the August heat.
I’d normally be thankful for a breeze but here on the hilltop a hot wind is blowing – the scirocco from Africa – and it feels as though I’m standing in front of a full-length hairdryer. We retreat to the shade.
Francesco speaks in measured tones, calmly explaining the ins and outs of almonds as beads of sweat trickle down my back. We are in a grove of fascionello almond trees, which along with the prized pizzuta cultivar, are able to thrive in this arid climate. The fruits survive the intense Sicilian heat by growing an extremely thick, hard shell that protects the intensely flavored almond seed inside. In fact, the shell amounts to 80% of the whole almond’s weight.
Francesco warns that it is impossible to open these almonds with a nutcracker – the farm has a special machine for this, and sells most of its almonds already shelled.
By comparison, California grown almonds have only a 40% shell weight, but their almonds contain less oil and as a result, less flavor. It’s a trade-off that Francesco seems happy to make.
At last we hear a motor and the almond harvester arrives. It has a tractor-like section in the rear with a yellow contraption up front that resembles a huge upside-down umbrella.
Within the folds of the umbrella, are two thick metal arms covered with rubber, which reach out and grasp the trunk of a tree. The umbrella unfolds to form a big cup-like sack, and suddenly a loud motor kicks on. The ground beneath my feet trembles, the tree shakes furiously, leaves fly up in the air, and almonds land neatly in the sack. It only lasts a few seconds, like a mini-earthquake.
Francesco explains that with this method – manned by 2 or 3 people – they can harvest as much as what 40 men could do by hand, or about 600 trees in a day. When there are 15,000 trees to harvest, it makes sense.
A few of the smaller trees with slender trunks still get the hand-picked treatment, which consists of whacking the branches with a wooden pole, then collecting the almonds that fall to the ground. The fellow that does this has skin darkened from the sun, and is amazingly energetic, filling a bucket in a short time, then jogging off to dump them in the machine’s sack. Finding 40 men like this would be no easy task.
Later the harvested almonds are separated from the leaves and left to dry in the sun for a few days, until they “sound right.” When ready to be harvested, the almond will rattle in the shell. If you listen to it carefully, the rattle will be soft, like a tiny thud. Once it has dried in the sun, the rattle will become like a sharp tapping noise. This is a signal that the almond is truly ready. It can be stored without fear of getting moldy.
Since I’m obviously a glutton for punishment, Francesco gives me a kilo of whole almonds so that I can attempt to open them. Being around all these almonds has given me a hankering to make traditional Sicilian almond milk.
It’s now close to noon, and is getting hotter by the second. As the top of my head feels like it’s about to burst into flames, I say goodbye to Francesco.
My car is parked in the sun, and is like a blast furnace inside. I’ve learned a lot about the almond harvest, but also that being hot in Sicily is a relative thing. I drive home with the windows down, enjoying the African wind.