In the Vinalopo valley, late August, early September is almond harvesting time and in the early mornings we began to hear the sound of trees of being thwacked to loosen the almonds in traditional fashion and sometimes the mechanical shaking machines used by the better off or more forward thinking farmers in the valley.
We decided to start our harvesting at the bottom of the field furthest away from the house close to our neighbour Jose’s house. Armed with sticks and a large net we duly thwacked our first tree and were rewarded with a shower of still husked almonds into our net. The husks which surround the shell need to be removed, therefore rather than filling our sacks (we had previously ascertained that sacks were the acceptable form of container for almonds not wanting a repeat of the “no sacos – plastico” comments at the co-operativa) with extra volume we decided to “de-husk” as we went along. It didn’t take long for Jose to come and tell us that we were doing it all wrong. In a stream of rapid, colloquial Spanish out of which I could recognise only a few words but accompanied by a vivid mime which left us in no doubt as to what we should be doing, Jose explained that we should take the still husked almonds to somewhere close to the house and spread them out to dry for a couple of days before attempting to de-husk them. Jose also helpfully pointed out that our net was inefficiently spread and we would lose almonds through the gap. Apart from useful almond harvesting lore I learned a new verb; Recoger or sometimes just Coger means to pick or harvest and with my developing conjugating skills I was able to tell my zumba class the following day that recogemos las almendras – we are picking the almonds.
Once Jose joined us, we didn’t get a lot of harvesting done before wine o’clock but full of new knowledge we gathered our equipment the following afternoon and returned to the bottom of the field. Before long we had developed a rhythm and a routine for each tree: first, spread the net underneath ensuring there are no gaps, next, thwack the tree with sticks – we use the handle of an old mattock that we found in the garage and half a broom stick (re-use, re-cycle) until all the almonds are off the tree, decide whether to bag or drag the almonds i.e. a large harvest from the tree goes straight into a sack but a smaller harvest can be dragged on top of the net to the next tree. Steve then takes the wheelbarrow and sticks to the next tree while I take the net and spread it again. Each tree takes between five and fifteen minutes to harvest and we have approximately three hundred trees, some of which are too small to bear nuts yet but most have at least a few so Steve and I reckoned that if we spent four hours a day, five days a week harvesting we could finish in a month. Factors such as my zumba classes which were shortly to increase to four a week might affect the timings as might guests in the apartment and visiting friends we thought, however we didn’t anticipate that the weather would hold us up.
La Gota Fria, literally translated as “the cold drop” is a weather phenomenon which most commonly takes place after the summer months when the sea temperature is still high, but the temperature in upper airstreams suddenly drops. The warm air, saturated with water vapour, rises and cools too quickly when meeting the upper airstreams. The result is extremely intense rainfall, accompanied by high winds (up to 140 km/h), hail and thunderstorms.
The afternoon was sultry with dark clouds coming over the mountain behind us and a warm wind increasing in strength plus a few rumbles of thunder in the distance. There had been a few thunderstorms in the previous few days, usually without rain or only a small amount therefore we weren’t unduly worried but after half an hour of increasingly thundery conditions there was a flash of lightning immediately followed by a thunderclap so loud and so close that it made me scream. Heavy rain, rapidly increasing in volume and accompanied by hailstones drove us to Jose’s house for shelter and within minutes the cloud, rain, and hail were so impenetrable that we could see neither our house nor indeed much further than the edge of Jose’s terrace. The hailstones grew bigger and covered the ground like snow and the rain was torrential. For over an hour we sat on the terrace, driven further back towards the house by the force of the rain, thunder crashed and roared and the lightning forked across the sky all around us. Jose’s tiny dog sat on his lap shaking and his son, also Jose or JosB as John christened him, filmed the storm on his phone. After about twenty minutes we remembered, unhappily, that we had left all our windows open at home but there was nothing we could do except wait for the storm to pass.
When the storm eventually passed we went outside to survey the damage, which was considerable. Many of Jose’s almonds to the south of his house had been knocked off the trees along with some of his olives. Tomatoes were smashed to a puree and the leaves on trees and plants were shredded. Back at home we found pools of water on the floors at the back of the house , soaking rugs and even our bed was wet. I looked for the place where the roof used to leak but realised that the rain hadn’t come through the roof but through the window and blown across the room to the bed. Outside there were holes in the surface of our newly monocappa’d wall, the red peppers were similarly holey and many of the tomatoes and grapes were split and damaged. My English geraniums were looking very sorry for themselves but the Spanish ones looked in better shape and luckily most of the plants in pots had been sheltered by the walls. Later we discovered we had escaped without too much damage as further down the valley entire crops had been destroyed and many people’s cars and houses had substantial damage. The temperature of our pool, previously a balmy eighty degrees dropped ten degrees and made it too chilly for me to swim in although Steve stoicly swam each day.
After a couple of blustery days the weather settled again and we were able to continue harvesting assisted for a few days by the visiting superhero “Big Stick Girl” so called for her “Big Stick” which Helen used in an unorthodox but effective pokey/wiggly style.
Helen chose a tree to call her own that harvested a whopping 4.7 kg of nuts – one of the heaviest cropping trees. Kathryn’s tree (chosen whilst not in nut) harvested a more modest 1.9kg and Nicola’s tree 4.6kg. It will be interesting to compare each tree’s harvest next year after Steve has pruned them; we noticed that the few trees we managed to prune last year all yielded good crops. Being out in the fields all day gave us the opportunity to see the local insect life at close quarters. Apart from flies, wasps and other buzzy things we saw several preying mantis, one of which nipped me with its’ pincers, beetles in various colours and sizes and spiders; thin and wispy spiders with very long legs, stocky small ones that move very fast, jumping spiders but worse of all, spiders with big fat bodies and chunky legs related, without a doubt, to Shelob.
At the end of each day’s work we spread the almonds on a net to dry and then bagged them and after three weeks we had finished the picking. We had a private little harvest festival – a glass of wine and a fresh almond each (we know how to party) and then started the next part of the process; de-husking. Bagful by bagful, Steve emptied the almonds into the wheelbarrow and we sat on the terrace listening to our CD collection in alpahabetical order (in the C’s we listened to Eric Clapton, the Communards, Elvis Costello and Jim Croce amongst others), sorting and discarding leaves, twigs, husks and last year’s almonds and re-bagging this year’s crop.
Our final total was four hundred and sixty kilos – approximately one hundred and two thousand nuts. We are hoping to receive a good price for the almonds as production is, apparently, down due to the cool spring we experienced. We will take the majority of the crop to a local co-operativa either in Castalla or Pinoso although we have heard that Agost may give us a better price, but we will keep back a certain amount in order to experiment with almond products. We have made blanched almonds – ours didn’t keep for very long and ground almonds which are fantastic in macaroons and biscuits but we also experimented with biscuit recipes using unskinned ground almonds which are a trifle more rustic in appearance but no less delicious. Helen told us about almond milk – a dairy free alternative to cow’s milk and courtesy of Google, Steve found a simple recipe and made some. I suspect commercial almond milk contains both stabilisers and preservatives – ours tasted alright but didn’t keep so won’t be part of the “Foods from the Finca” stable. We have yet to try making almond oil or almond essence nor almond liqueur but roasted salted almonds, caramelised almonds, almond and orange or lemon biscuits, macaroons and unshelled almonds are all successful products and will definitely make their way to a market stall in the near future. Another successful experiment involved last year’s walnuts, parsley and olive oil which, together with some Parmesan cheese make a fabulous pesto, divine on pasta with goat’s cheese or as a base for a tomato or onion tart. I have also found that both walnuts and almonds in the shell look very decorative in glass dishes or bowls with candles and tealights.
We had been told that the almond husks can be burnt in our wood-burner but an outdoor experiment proved unsuccessful producing some heat but a lot of malodorous black smoke so we decided to abandon that idea – we have plenty of last year’s shells which DO burn well.
At the time of writing we have passed our one year anniversary at Finca Los Gatos and it seems a good time to look back at the year and reflect on what we have achieved. The land has been rejuvenated and the trees are responding to the care we are giving them and cropping well, allowing us to make some money from the harvest. Outside, the house looks loved with the weeds kept down and the garden slowly establishing, providing colour and scent along with herbs, fruit and vegetables which we hope will increase next year. I am teaching four zumba classes a week and at the beginning of October started to do some conversational English with two teenagers, children of a couple of my zumba customers and I have had an enquiry about teaching a five year old and a couple of twenty somethings. Steve has joined the tennis club in Sax and plays twice a week; both of us are establishing links with our community. The olives are looking very good. Steve’s pruning has really paid off and many of the trees, bare last year, are laden with plump fruit promising a good harvest in January.
The Apartment at Finca Los Gatos has been occupied by both friends and strangers, all of whom have been comfortable and left with very few suggestions for changes and we have listened and acted upon those suggestions that have been made. We have met quite a few of the local ex-patriot community and have made some good contacts and one or two good friends. We see our friends north of Valencia fairly often and have maintained good contact with friends and family in England many of whom have been out to visit us. It has been a full and rich year and whilst there are days when the language barrier is frustrating or I long to pop into Marks and Spencer, we don’t regret moving here one bit. Moving out of one’s comfort zone is inevitably uncomfortable but overcoming challenges especially in one’s middle life is quite immensely satisfying and stimulating. We have more challenges and aspirations for the coming year and are looking forward to them hugely (mostly).