Van Gogh’s almond tree, painted on the birth of his nephew
Legend has it that when the south of Portugal was under Moorish rule the prince in AlGarb (Algarve) married a Norwegian princess. It was a love marriage but she grew sad because missed the snow of her native land. Her loving husband had thousands of almond trees planted so that when the white blossom started to drift to the ground it would seem like snowflakes. Today all over the Algarve there are special celebrations as the almond blossom heralds the arrival of spring.
Tafraoute is the almond capital of Morocco and in February there are week-long celebrations and and folk-lore performances outside the Roman ruins.
The Moors’ rule in Sicily introduced the island to the wide use of nuts. The pistachio nuts from Bronte are prized all over Italy and almonds are used in many guises. The marzipan Martorana fruits are exported all over the world and almonds are used in many desserts. In Noto, Caffe Sicilia and Dolceria Costanzo Corrado are two compulsory stops for the almond or pistachio granita and gelato, not to mention the heavenly canolo and cassata.
I am giving two Sicilian recipes using almonds – one for biscotti and another for almond meat balls, both very easy to make.
Biscotti di mandorle Almond biscuits
We learned to make these with Signora Nella in her cooking school near Scicli in Sicily. She prefers to blanch her own almonds and grind them in the food processor but you can substitute commercial ground almonds.
300 g ground almonds
200 g sugar
Zest of one large lemon (un-waxed)
A few blanched almonds for decoration
I use my food processor to make this very quickly. Mix together the ground almonds, sugar, lemon zest and eggs. Line a baking tray with baking parchment and pipe out small balls of the mixture. Make small balls by hand if you find it easier. Leave gaps between because they will expand during cooking. Make an indentation on the top of each biscuit.and stick in an almond.
Bake in an 180 c. oven for 15 minutes until golden brown.
Polpette di Vitello e Mandorle
400 g lean veal, or veal and pork mixed
50 g blanched almonds, finely chopped
30 g Parmesan or pecorino, grated
1 large slice white bread, soaked in milk
2 T chopped parsley
Zest of one lemon
1 garlic clove, minced
Salt and black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil for shallow frying
I make the mixture in my processor with metal chopping blade. First chop the cheese and nuts. Remove then process the meat, parsley, garlic and the squeezed out bread. Return the almonds and cheese, process briefly then add eggs, lemon zest and seasoning. Form into small balls, flatten slicely and fry in the oil until golden brown.