August at the Almond Grove: childhood memories

My childhood memories of August are all about almonds and carobs.
My grandmother, my dad's mother, was the daughter of a farmer, Massa Titta, who owned land in the countryside outside the town of Ispica.
When he died the land was divided among his children and my grandmother became the owner of an almond grove where there were also a few huge carob trees.

Every year, the whole family was asked to go to San F/Pantinu (this was the name of the area where the land was) to help collecting almonds.
I must admit it was a bit of a torture for everybody involved because it usually happened during the August holidays with soaring temperatures. It was really hard work and we were all involved.
Men put some nets under the trees and started beating the branches to let the almonds fall, then they would fill some containers with them and take them to the little house near the entrance to the grove.
As soon as they finished, another team would then search the ground around the tree for almonds that might have fallen outside the net.
The heat, the dry earth and dust, the little insects (pudduzzuna) that fell on you from the tree, made it an unpleasant job.
Back at the house, my grandmother Nonna Marietta, who directed the whole operation, divided the almonds setting the "pizzuta" on one side and the "romana" on the other side and would explain to us the difference and teach us how to recognise them.
Then the other women and the children were asked to clean the almonds, getting the green shell and the leaves off them.
In the meantime, we would listen to her stories, to the women gossiping, to the elderly men describing how it used to be when they were young, singing, etc.
Every so often, Nonna Marietta, rewarded us by cracking some almonds. I was simply crazy about them. The taste of freshly collected almonds is truly special. You crack the shell, get the almond, pill the skin off and find this white firm wonderful nut. She used to choose the best Romana almonds for us as she said they had the best flavor (intense and aromatic). She was so right!
Lunch time was obviously a "festa" and even washing the dishes was fun as this little country house had no running water and we had to get water from the well.
At the end of August, we would again meet up in San F/Pantinu to collect carobs, this was a much easier and cleaner job given the characteristic of the tree and its fruit.
Carobs did not need to be cleaned or anything, so my cousins and I used to spend the day under the tree making necklaces out of carob leaves. Something I still enjoy doing with my daughter.
Overtime, I started to hear Nonna Marietta complaining about the low price of almonds in the market, she said that running the almond grove cost more than what they made when selling the almonds. At some point, the family decided to sell the land. I was young and did not get involved in the matter at all, it also seemed we had finally regained possession of our August holidays.
Few years later, I realised the annoying hot days at the almond groves had actually given me some of my best childhood memories, the contact with mother nature and what it can offer was first hand top quality teaching. It also gave me an understanding of the hard work behind products we now simply find on supermarket shelves, a great time with my extended family and, above all, a full experience of farming life as it used to be in the XIX and early XX century, as Nonna Marietta, Massa Titta and other ancestors experienced it on a daily basis.
I realised only then that the sweating, tyring experience at the almond grove got me as close to "my roots" as I have ever been.

Written on
August 12, 2009