Photos by Aglaia Kremezi
Throughout the Middle East, the green almonds of early spring are nibbled raw, added to salads, or cooked together with lamb in a lemony sauce. In Greece they are preserved in heavy syrup as a spoon-sweet, like karydaki (green, unripe walnuts) or melitzanaki (tiny eggplants, the most exotic of our spoon-sweets). Green almonds are also pickled. Unusually delicious and crunchy, they are served as an appetizer, together with various kinds of olives, pickled cauliflower, peppers and carrots. Their sour taste perfectly complements the sweet and strong, anise-flavored ouzo or raki. And the traditional flourless almond cookies of my island, Kea, are an ideal Passover sweet because they are simply made with almonds, sugar, and egg whites.
Here on Kea, fuzzy, green almonds are the first sign of spring in our garden. These last few weeks, we were blessed with considerable rain, following a somewhat mild winter. A cold, wet March anticipates plentiful summer vegetable gardens, according to Greek proverbs, but our almond trees were not particularly spectacular this year. This year there were only scattered blossoms, and just the smallest of our twenty or so almond trees were in full bloom. Keans say that almond trees, much like olive trees, blossom bountifully every second year, and last summer we did have something of a bumper crop.
With all due respect to the California producers, our small and unattractive almonds have much more flavor.
It is important to select green almonds that are crunchy but still tender, picked before their shell hardens, while the nut inside appears translucent. To select green almonds for pickling I have to watch their growth attentively, picking them when they are less than an inch long. Just a couple of days too late and I might find them too large and tough, unsuitable for pickling. But we waste nothing. Even when the outer layers of some of the almonds are no longer edible--having tipped toward acridity, with an unpleasantly hairy coating--I pick them with guilty pleasure. I crack the shells open with my teeth and savor the watery nut.
My marinade for pickling, unlike traditional Eastern Mediterranean recipes, is "sweet-and-sour" (agro-dolce), inspired by the brine made to pickle Ligurian baby peaches. Peach growers have to trim the trees of most of their fruits in early spring (much like vintners), so that the right amount of peaches ripen to perfection. The crunchy, immature, pickled peaches look and taste very much like tsagala, our green almonds. Both trees belong to the same family anyway.
"An okah of almonds was sold for a golden sterling coin," my cousin Leonidas used to say. (An okah is an old measure of weight, about three pounds or 1.282 kilograms.) Almond trees are abundant on Kea, as on most Cycladic islands. My recently passed cousin Leonidas, born in 1930, spent part of his childhood on the island. He had memories of Kea being almost self-sufficient, long before the recent reversal of agricultural and economic fortunes. In those days, the few inland fertile, sheltered pieces of land were considered prime real estate, but now they are worth little. As construction continues to metastasize, rocky, windy, infertile, good-for-nothing plots of land on steep hills with sea views sell like hotcakes to wealthy Athenians.
Very few people now take the considerable time needed to collect, dry, and crack almonds, although every Kean garden has at least a few of the resilient trees. Imported almonds--mostly from California--are cheap and readily available at the supermarket, while the few local almonds occasionally sold at gift-shops are much more expensive. With all due respect to the California producers, our small and unattractive almonds have much more flavor, but few have the opportunity to compare the two, as the majority of almond trees scattered all over the island are rarely harvested.
Leonidas moved back to the island 20 years ago, when he retired. At some point he learned that the piece of land next to his own was for sale, and this is how we acquired the land to build our home on Kea. Leonidas was one of the very few people on the island who actually harvested his almonds every summer. He patiently cracked them, storing the nuts and burning the shells in his stove all through the winter. He would bring little bags of shelled almonds as presents every time he came to Athens. His garden has a tree that produces bitter almonds: the very fragrant, yet somewhat toxic nuts which are used to produce almond extract. Although bitter almonds are banned in the U.S., throughout the eastern Mediterranean they are an expensive commodity. Myriad cookies and all kinds of almond sweets are traditionally spiked with a few of them for their distinct flavor and aroma. "One bitter for every 25 regular almonds," a Turkish woman once told me.
Green Almonds Agro-Dolce
A method to make your own sweet-and-sour pickled almonds.
Kean Amygdalota (Flourless Almond Cookies)
The traditional flourless almond cookies of Kea are an ideal Passover sweet because they are simply made with almonds, sugar, and egg whites. All over the Middle East, one finds endless variations of these cookies, often heavily scented with citrus blossom or rose water. I prefer to just use a few drops of lemon liqueur, letting the flavor and aroma of the almonds shine.
Leonidas' Crunchy Almond Cigars
Based on the syrup-drenched, rolled baklava, Leonidas created these wonderfully simple, crunchy, almond and lemon phylo rolls. They are a light and healthy substitute for cookies.
Savory Almond Rolls
A variation on Leonidas' almond cigars.
Fresh Garlic and Almond Spread
With fresh garlic from the garden, I whipped up this spread last week, a greener variation on skordalia, the traditional Greek garlic sauce.