Sunday, 21 February 2010

Almendro almond almendro

The Almendro de la Montana, (Dipteryx panamensis), is a beautiful emergent canopy tree, a mammoth thing, with lovely purple flowers and a yellowish bark. It is one of the giants and can reach 150 feet in height: we know several people who have bought their homes because of the view of an almendro. Two of these people (in different areas) were later devastated when the tree fell, but pleased by the milling of the wood, they both purchased as much as they could and it holds a special place in their homes as floors, banisters, furniture and facing. In this area it is illegal to cut down a large almendro, but the wood is very highly prized and so 'accidents' can happen.

The tree is food and home to the Great Green Macaw, unfortunately this stunning creature has basically disappeared from this part of Costa Rica, though there are efforts being made to return it to the wild, part of those efforts are the planting of almendros.

This post however is really about the fruit of the almendro. This is the season and as you may imagine we are busy harvesting - a 150 foot tall tree drops a lot of nuts. The almendro makes an almond like nut in a hard shell. This shell is wrapped with a soft fruit much beloved by various animals and birds. The tree is a great provider of food for several species of birds, night monkeys, pizotes, racoons, squirrels and forest floor dwelling agoutis, pacas and small wild pigs. Quite the party! We are visiting every other day to gather the fallen nuts whose fruit has been eaten: no point in taking the whole thing - we would rob the animals of their food and the fruit is of no use to us. The biggest almendro is in a far part of the farm, these are primarily forest and not fruit trees, so the hike prohibits too large a harvest in one go.

Back in the kitchen the first job is to boil the nuts for about 10 minutes or until the shell opens just a crack. A huge pot of boiling nuts reminds me a lot of my childhood and boiling mussels: the shells are covered in short green hairs that bear an uncanny resemblance to algae covered mussel or limpet shells. The water they boil in quickly becomes an olive green viscous soup not too dissimilar to the salty, sandy first boilings of crustaceans. When the water is poured off and one sits down with a small knife to open the shells it really feels like opening a mussel shell. Inside, the almendro nut is pale brown and about an inch and a half long, a tapered cylinder, slippy and held to the shell by something that looks just like that muscle (?) on a mussel. There's even some black fuzz along the edges of the shell. Strangely familiar. Shelling the nuts takes a while. Good time to chat with friends, we were lucky to have some friends staying with us last week who were happy to help, about 5 of us sat around shelling and talking while 3 others prepared the next step.

Actually there are several potential next steps. The easiest one is drying the nuts, we dry them for about 20 hours at 110F. Another method is to roast them as one would cacao, slowly over a low flame. I think I like the dried ones better though. The third option is by far the most work, and the one we seem to have chosen this past week: making oil.

Almendros almost drip oil. If they are stored in the fridge after boiling, one can find a small pool of yellow fat inside each nut. It seemed too good an opportunity, so we borrowed a friend's hand cranked oil expeller and set to work.

The oil expeller in question is a PITEBA, a small, relatively inexpensive, low tech, rather cute tool. The website talks about the tropics and different nuts and seeds, including cacao and coconut. It recommends drying the seeds first, so we did it twice, the first time with the fresh nuts (no patience), and the following day with the dried.

The first pressing with the fresh nuts was pretty much a no go. We thought we might get almendro butter, but no, what we made was meal. Dry meal (where did all the oil go?). I made cookies using the meal to replace just over 1/2 of the normal flour content. They were very tasty, strongly flavoured, reminded me of a very fresh marzipan cookie, with a little amaretto thrown in for good measure. Good, but no oil.

The second pressing was better. Harmony and I became terribly technical and measured everything so I can now say with some authority that one cup of dried whole almendros yields one packed cup of almendro meal and 5ml of almendro oil. One teaspoon. That's yer lot (as my mother would say). It's not much. It brought me to the realization of how much I take oil for granted. We processed about 1/2 cup of very pure, cold-pressed, organic virgin almendro oil before running out of nuts. It took us about 2 hours. We have yet to try the oil. It's sitting on a window ledge to be admired by everyone who passes. The meal on the other hand is being used with abandon, more cookies, a cake and a very interesting wild almond (almond in Spanish is almendro) pate. Mix ground almonds with chopped onion, garlic, parsley and sour cream, shape into a 'log' and chill. Tastes remarkably like liver pate (???).

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thanks for sharing!