Although it is unlikely that KirIan will be importing Greek almonds to North America (California is among the world’s largest producers of almonds), it was an interesting experience to learn more about some traditional Greek agricultural methods including the harvesting of almonds.
A few days after Ian arrived in Greece in mid-August, he traveled with Kiriaki by car to a small village west of Atalanti, Greece so that they could both help with the almond harvest that was taking place. It was a beautiful drive on the Sunday evening along the Greek National Road (but the tolls are dreadful) out of Athens, with gorgeous views along the way. When we finally arrived in the small village, a delicious dinner cooked by Mrs. Iordanou was ready for us, and then some good laughs over Ian’s attempt to converse in Greek.
It was an early night as the wake-up call to get ready to head to the fields was to sound at 6:30 am – a time of day rarely seen by either Kiriaki or Ian! But the fresh mountain air seemed to energize and even though sleep was short, 6:30 Monday morning arrived seeing every one appearing fresh and ready. And fresh and ready we all needed to be, to face the heat and sun that was to come, along with the hard work ahead.
After mugfuls of coffee were drank, lots of water along with cheese pie was packed into the vehicles and off we went driving across old paths that have probably existed for centuries – paths where shepherds lead their sheep and farmers of yore would likely drive donkeys in order to transport their harvest. We drove as far as we could and then walked to the almond field, where we were met with the beautiful view, pictured above.
<h2>Almonds Are Native To The Mediterranean Region</h2>
While California, USA is now where about 60% of the world’s commercially available almonds grow, the tree is actually native to the Mediterranean region. It requires dry warm summers with wet and cool winters to thrive. In Greece, almonds are called “αμύγδαλο” (pronounced like amigdalo). English speakers familiar with human biology might recognize the similarity to the word “amygdala,” the two almond-shaped parts of the brain that are known to influence memory, mood and other brain functions. The reason for this is because of the fact that they are almond-shaped.
According to the Food & Agricultural Organization of The United Nations, Greece is one of the largest producers of almonds in the world, producing about 12 tons annually. This drupe or nut has been important in traditional Greek dishes, mostly in sweet dishes but also found as an ingredient in sauces and some stuffed rice recipes.
Almonds have been an important part of the Greek (and other Mediterannean areas) diet for thousands of years.
<h2>The Almond Harvest</h2>
Almonds are ready for harvest generally about 7 months after the trees flower. We arrived at the almond fields ready with long wooden sticks, about 1/2″ by 2″ by 8′ long, which used to reach the higher branches of the trees to knock the almonds to the ground. Some of the trees were tall enough that we had to climb them to reach the upper branches, and with the hot sun blazing in the sky, the work got harder as the morning went on. One needs to be careful to use the right amount of force; gentle enough to try not to damage the branches, but firm enough to knock the almonds from the branches. If all goes well, most of the almonds will land on a tarp below the tree which makes it easier for them to be gathered together and then bagged.
Knocking the almonds from the higher tree limbs and branches is hard work, both on the hands and the shoulders and requires some endurance as well as strength. While wearing gloves might protect the hands from blisters and slivers, I personally hate wearing work gloves in the warmer climates and even as a teenager working hayfields in Ontario, refused to wear gloves… putting up with a few slivers that can be removed later along with callouses seemed more comfortable than dealing with the constant itch of dust and other particles that can get into the gloves while working.
It was a great experience to get back to agricultural work that while is hard work, is satisfying and in the outdoors with fresh air to breathe. While many pay for gym memberships, working hard and also doing something productive is good for muscle growth, maintenance and overall fitness as well!
Around 1PM, the sun was high in the sky and even hotter, and after we finished a significantly tall tree that was loaded with almonds, and required a long reach as well as some tree climbing, we called it a day. Rehydration was important and we had run out of our water anyway, so it was time to head back.
The rest of the day was spent cleaning up the almonds, removing the outer layers of those that needed that to be done, and some relaxation to recoup to return again, the next day.
Traditional agriculture in Greece is hard work – and if you meet any Greek farmers, you can be sure you know someone that understands the value of hard work and physical labour, and aren’t afraid to shy away from it.