Inside the almond story: #1 A balancing act

August 11th, 2006

Growing almonds is essentially a balancing act. During interviews with growers in the French Roussillon region, that becomes very clear. In spite of its ancestry and basic nature as a Mediterranean tree, the almond does need water - not in excess, just a little at a time - ideally in drip irrigation five times a day. The tree’s long tap root and ability to survive drought in poor soil is a plus, but to produce high quality almonds in good quantity, the soil and water are a grower’s main preoccupations. California almond trees are irrigated, grown in thousands of acres of enriched valley soil, hence tons of almonds flow with regularity onto the world market. Spanish irrigation in groves is scanty, partly due to the rocky terrain and terraced planting, so the trees are subject to greater shock in dry years. Sicilian growers are installing more irrigation systems in spite of their irregular terrain, a Herculean effort that we witnessed in the rugged hills around Noto. On Apulian slopes across southernmost Italy and in groves overlooking the coast of Crete, almond trees grow - some with the advantage of irrigation, some without.
“The almond tree has a memory of three years” explains Giles Gibbs, a Roussillon grower whose verdant almond orchard near Thuir is a case study. If an overly dry summer causes fruit to drop one summer, it will do the same the following year. It sheds fruit that cannot be nourished, a shock that takes three years of care to restore normal bearing and a decent crop. “To nourish one almond, it takes sixty healthy leaves”, adds the affable, lanky engineer turned almond grower. We follow him between trees lush with leaves, their branches loaded with plump green almonds, giving no evidence of ‘fruit drop’ problems. “A healthy tree doesn’t need frequent pruning”, Gibbs remarks “…if they are fed well enough, we just remove lower branches every three years”. We stop to inspect the ground around a trunk, evidently spread with some dry organic matter. Non-composted marc de raisin (the residue remaining after grapes are pressed) is collected from local grape growers and serves to change the soil composition, resulting in a more water-retentive structure. It seems a natural balance, a symbiosis using the residue of one crop, grapes, to nourish a new crop, almonds.

Gibbs does not sell green almonds. It is such a short phase of the almond’s year, and one with a limited market. Only a few growers in the Roussillon appear to be organized to pick and sell the delicate green nuts. Their principal market is in the middle east, or Arab grocers in Paris or Provence. These clients want the choicest almonds, which command a higher price. Green almonds are picked by hand, are fragile, spoil within a few days if not kept in a cool, dark place, and are thus more problematic to keep and to ship. A handful of inventive chefs order green almonds and turn them out onto refined platters, from octopus with green almonds on the Costa Brava, to spiced Provençal peaches bathed in almond milk. In open air markets across the south of France, finding green almonds is a matter of serendipity, the chance that a grower took time to gather a few - with a regular, very particular client in mind.

Always, the question of balance comes into play as the grower decides which direction to steer his or her time, trees, land and production: to hand pick green almonds for a high end, middle eastern market, or to aim at the volume market of dry almonds for pastry makers and confectioners, for local restaurants or to be shipped abroad. These considerations, along with the vagaries of each season’s weather, may tip the balance for almond growers anywhere in the world - all affecting how and when the ordinary market shopper can enjoy baking an almond gâteau for Sunday lunch.
(excerpt adapted for vagabondgourmand from Ah, Almonds!)

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