I can see Mount Amiata in the distance from the grounds of Villa Montecchio, the olive groves laying at my feet reluctantly waiting until next year’s harvest. The barren almond trees having provided a robust bounty this past October, are standing proudly to my right. The unruly rosemary bushes having provided sustenance to the honey bees are pouting behind my back, as their playmates have long sought shelter from the cooling weather. The air is crisp and fresh, as the soft mauve and pink mists dance around Mount Amiata as if providing her peak protection from the soft falling snow. The winter months have arrived.
With outstretched hands I give thanks to Tuscany, the Tuscan people and our friends from Arceno for their gifts of this past year. Buon Capodanno! (Happy New Year!).
“The past beats inside me like a second heart.”― John Banville, The Sea
A Tuscan Mandorla (Almond) Harvest
We had just set foot outside the large chestnut doors of the Casale, stepping into the warming Tuscan sun. We were planning to walk to San Gusme our nearest hilltop village for a Cafe Americano and perhaps a piccola torta (small cake). Maybe Il Covo di Nina will be open today I thought, as we walked down our tufa lined pathway. I wanted our visiting friends Rick and Diane, to meet Nina, a wonderful woman, with a head full of red curly hair and a large luminous smile.
“Sergio has just arrived” my husband said, heading off to greet him as Sergio pulled into the parcheggio coperto (covered parking) area at the end of the Casale’s pathway.
“I can set my clock by Sergio” I said to our friends, as Sergio and my husband began an animated conversation. With their heads turning to face the piscina (pool) area, Sergio raised his right hand pointing his forefinger toward the back yard. He was wearing a heavier green jacket today, which I thought was odd given the weather today was expected to be warm.
“Sergio is going to harvest the mandorle (almonds) by the pool this morning and he has asked if we would like to help him,” David (my husband) said as he walked up the pathway toward us.
“We have mandorla trees?, I asked. “Yes, the trees are located at the back of the Villa and are apparently laden with nuts”.
We all looked at each other and without missing a beat, said in unison “We can walk tomorrow.”
“How many times do you get to participate in a Tuscan almond harvest” we said, proceeding to follow in Sergio’s foot steps to the back of the Villa.
In Nova Scotia we have almond trees which flower in the spring, producing a beautiful pink flower that signals spring has finally arrived. They do not produce a nut given our temperatures are too cold and the growing season is too short. Instead, they provide a flash of romance when their delicate petals float through the air reminiscent of bridal confetti, leaving soft patterns on the ground.
As we crested the side of the Villa, Sergio had already begun placing a rather large green silk cloth underneath the almond trees. It was different from the netting used during the olive harvest and we inquired about the cloth he was using; was it especially for almond harvesting? “No, è il mio paracadute “(No, It is my parachute) Sergio said, “Ero un pilota dell’aeronautica italiana”(I was a pilot in the Italian Air Force), continuing to move the floating material quickly around the base of the trees. Another example of how our past becomes recycled with the present, I thought.
Now “Proteggi i tuoi occhi” (protect your eyes) Sergio said, pointing to his eyes which were covered with his eyeglasses. He then raised the “canna” in the air. Sergio described the canna as a type of “wood” which looked similar to bamboo to us. He tied two pieces of the canna together, ensuring the length of the limber canna would reach the “le migliori mandorle sono in cima all’albero” (the best almonds on the top of the tree).
The canna moved back and forth above our heads, cutting the air like a whip, we could hear a soft whirring sound with each movement of Sergio’s arms. There was no need for mechanical harvesting when this long-standing method continued to work.
As the sounds of the canna hitting the tree limbs rang out, the almonds began falling like raindrops around us, sending us dodging for cover from the onslaught of the falling nuts. Diane and I giggled like school girls as we slipped and slid over the silk fabric of the parachute.
“Jeez, they do pack a wallop” I said as one hit me squarely in the forehead leaving a small red dot. Maybe this is why Sergio is wearing his heavier sweater today.
In 100 AD the Romans apparently threw almonds at newly weds as a fertility charm, I couldn’t help but think the bride and grooms may be too sore to think about marital relations if the Romans threw shelled almonds at them, ouch!
We quickly began picking up the almonds which had whizzed overhead either missing the parachute or bouncing off one of us.
Sergio began working up a sweat and I could see small drops of moisture beginning to roll down his tanned cheeks. Pausing to rest for a few minutes, we began enjoying the views of Mount Amiata and the peace and tranquility of the day. The bees could be heard feasting on the rosemary hedge lining the pool and the sky overhead was a brilliant and beautiful blue. The color was reminiscent of the skies found in Italian Renaissance paintings all over Italy.
Also found in many Renaissance paintings is the distinctive halo around the religious figures in the shape of the almond seed. The halos were referred to by many Italian artists as Mandorle or almonds, and can be seen in Tuscan fresco’s and stained glass windows as well, signifying spiritual energy or serving as a protective shield. Over the entrance to the neo Romanesque parish church in San Gusme the twins Saints Cosmus and Damian both have halos.
As the sun continued its rise and it was blazing behind Rick and David. I thought for a fleeting moment I may be seeing halo’s emerging. Ah, it must be the heat I thought and went back to the almonds.
Under Sergio’s watchful eye and instruction, Rick and David took aim with the canna, rhythmically moving it back and forth against the tree limbs.
All the while Diane and I separated the almonds from any attached foliage, removing the external black casings (husks) providing protection to the almonds and placing the almonds into the various buckets and crates . “Non mangiare mandorle se i gusci sono neri” disse Sergio,”non sono buoni da mangiare“. (Do not eat any almonds if the shells are black” Sergio said, “they are not good to eat”).
With each of us picking up an end of the parachute we moved the almonds to the centre of the fabric and filled the containers to the brim.
As we carried the nuts back to the Casale. Sergio told us to dry the almonds for 8-10 days and then we would be able to crack the concrete like shells. “Se li asciughi all’esterno dovrai guardare gli uccelli” (If you dry them outside you will need to watch the birds), he said, as he moved toward his vehicle.
I am not quite sure this is exactly what Sergio would have had in mind, but the almonds began piling up on the lounge chairs in the yard, sunning themselves and being turned like visiting royalty by their faithful hand servants. Under our watchful eyes, no birds took a nut, but we had left enough on the ground to ensure their bellies would be full.
As we sat that evening discussing the day’s events, we savoured a glass of San Felice, 2013 Chianti Classico Reserva. As the garnet coloured liquid swirled in our wine glasses, we toasted another wonderful day in Tuscany, Sergio’s teachings and the gifts of the Tuscan land.
GoodReads (2001-2017). Banville (Web Site). Retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/91.John_Banville
National Almond Day (2017). The Almond History (Web Site). Retrieved from: http://www.nationalalmondday.com/history-of-almonds.html
The Waterford Nut Company (2013). About Almonds. (Web Site). Retrieved from: http://www.waterfordnut.com/facts.html