From mid-January, many parts of Spain treat its visitors to a pink and white visual almonds feast. Along the Mediterranean coastal areas you can see the beautiful almond trees in full bloom. The beauty of the almond trees and the mild climate make for the perfect time of year for a trip. Almonds are a special treat in Spain.
Booming demand for almonds
Spain is one of the world’s largest producers of almonds. However, it is still far behind the number one producer USA. California alone accounts for about 80 percent of the world’s supply of almonds.
With the increased health consciousness in the world, almonds are getting increasingly popular and the demand is booming. They are used as dairy and wheat alternatives and are used in almond milk, almond flour, in cooking and as healthy snacks. Strictly speaking, however, almonds are not a nut but a fruit similar to the peach. Regardless, many official food agencies categorize almonds in the wide group of tree nuts.
In Spain, farmers are rethinking sunflowers or wheat growing and are looking to almond trees instead. They can easily complement olive tree harvesting since the same tree “shaker” machines can be used on both crops. Spain is predicted to harvest over 61,000 tonnes of almonds during the 2018- 2019 season, a 15-percent rise over the previous season.
Spain has a long tradition of using almonds in cooking. Almonds add a decidedly nutty flavour to the Spanish soup favourite “ajo blanco” and to Spain’s Christmas-time classic turrón, an almond-honey variety of nougat. Despite being a major producer, Spain continues to import large quantities of almonds from California, USA.
Almond trees are relatively low-maintenance, little or no watering is needed and they thrive in the dry climates of the Mediterranean area. The tree may take two to three years before generating nuts and it can continue generating fruits for over fifty years.
The typical Spanish almond is known for its properties appealing to the senses particularly its sweet flavour which differentiates it from almonds of other origin. The quality of Spanish almonds is exceptional because of their higher oil content, making them juicier, smoother and more intensely flavoured.
Nowadays, there are large numbers of almond groves throughout Spain. Almond trees are particularly suited to poor soil areas and even steeply sloping terrain. They provide an effective obstacle to erosion.
Almond trees are very robust, long-lived trees. In the Mediterranean area, they can live for between 60-80 years, sometimes even as long as a 100. Along with the olive tree, it is one of the main trees cultivated for industrial purposes along the Mediterranean coast. Both share similar climatic requirements, average temperatures between 15-18 °C, mild winters and hot summers and no more than 600 mm of rain. Since both trees can be harvested using the same machinery it makes sense to grow both in the same areas.
The making of a nut
Pollination takes place between late winter and early spring. The three days after the opening of the flower are the ideal period for effective pollination. The fruit then grows rapidly. Almonds reach their full size ten weeks after fertilization.
The almond is contained within a greenish, velvety outer casing which as it ripens turns a pinkish colour, splits open, then dries up and falls off. In Spain, this typically happens between August and September and this is when almonds are harvested. It is important to harvest them quickly to keep their shells the golden colour that is so important in the marketplace. If the weather turns, and it starts to rains the almonds can turn an unappealing greyish colour.
Stripping is the process of removing the outer casing still adhering to some almonds, not having been shed during the fall from the tree. After stripping the almonds are generally exposed to the sun for another two or three days for them to finish drying out. This is also when their shells get their characteristic golden yellow colour.
Many varieties of almonds
Over a hundred different varieties are grown in Spain today, but there are five major commercial types. They are defined and selected from among the top-quality varieties: Marcona, Largueta, Planeta, Valencias or Comunas, and Mallorca. Three of them – Marcona, Largueta, and Planeta are native Spanish varieties.
Mallorca and Valencias are not names of one special variety but rather names for a collection. Mallorca is the generic commercial name used for all the varieties produced in the Balearic Island of Mallorca. Valencias is the commercial name for an assortment of botanical varieties. Spain’s five commercial almonds varieties are distinguished by characteristics which give them a particular appeal both as an ingredient for the confectionery industry and in the form of peeled and roasted or raw and salted kernels as a snack food.
Marcona is the queen of almonds. It is the perhaps the most characteristic and best-known variety. The Marcona almonds have a very delicate flavour and sweetness. It is also the most expensive type and it enjoys the best reputation in the marketplace. It has a round shape and a smooth white colour. Peeled and fried, or raw or roasted and salted are classic snack almonds. This is also the ideal almond for making marzipan and top of the range and Denomination of origin turrón nougats such as Jijona and Alicante.
This almond is characteristically elongated in shape and has a wonderful sweet flavour. In Spain this variety is often eaten as a snack roasted in its own skin which is then very easily removed. The confectionery industry finds Largueta ideal for making sugared almonds since the nuts are generally larger than other varieties. The biggest demand for peeled Larguetas for this purpose comes from Germany and Italy, both traditional producers of sugared almonds. These almonds are also perfect for use in chocolate bars where high-quality almonds are needed.
This type of almond has a long, flat shape. It has a very sweet flavour and makes for an ideal snack. Together with Largueta, Planeta is the variety most used for making sugared almonds.
There are many different native varieties of almond cultivated on the island of Mallorca and the denomination “Mallorca” is used to cover all the varieties produced there. These nuts are characterized by their pleasant flavour, by the complete absence of bitter almonds, and by their high-fat content. They are used for making turrón (Spanish nougats) and marzipans, some of them special denomination products. Their sweet flavour also makes them ideal for almond milk making.
Valencias or comunas
This is the most important commercial type representing and the largest part of Spain’s almond export. A distinction is drawn between Valencias Selected and Valencias unselected. As the name suggests the former undergo a more rigorous selection process thoroughly selected than the latter and are normally sold by size. Valencias selected are the almonds of which the bakery industry uses the most.
This special variety is a valued ingredient in cosmetics. Mixed with sweet almonds in specific proportions, it is also used in the bakery and confectionery industries.
The hardness of the shell
Almonds are also categorized depending on the hardness of the shell:
This commercial type includes all the hard-shell Spanish varieties (Valencias, Largueta, Marcona).
Mollar (soft shell)
This term covers all the soft-shell varieties. The principal one is Mollar Tarragona. This is the type most widely sold in the shell for direct consumption as the shells are so easily removed.
This is the commercial name for the semi soft-shell variety originally from the Island of Ibiza.
Next time you buy almonds, you know what to look for to get your very own favourite.