Almond tree at full winter bloom
Okay, the title of this post doesn’t have the same ring as the famous Beatles song, but here, in Galilee, almond fields are eternal. Originally from China, almond trees made their way to the Mediterranean region. At first the wild almond trees were poisonous and full of cyanide to ward off the leathery tongues of goats. In time, man domesticated the tree, and the almonds, a cousin of the peach and cherry, became man’s best friend on the road. In biblical times, during the great famine, Patriarch Jacob sent his sons to Egypt stocked with almonds. During Roman times, horsemen and mercenaries lived on almonds as the ultimate Trail Mix. When attending a wedding, guests showered the newlywed couple with almonds for good luck.
Liora at the controls
Recently I too was in luck. It was mid-August, the height of the almond harvest in Galilee. Liora, a third-generation woman farmer and friend of ours offered to give me a private tour of “the business.” So I get in my car and drive thirty minutes to Kibbutz Geva to meet her.
The first thing I see are stretches of flat land extending in very direction. At one end, there’s a makeshift camp covered with tarp. Under it, all-terrain vehicles are at the ready. Several semi-trailer trucks appear, sending clouds of red dust into the air. They’re loaded with un-shelled almonds. Liora stands like General Patton and gives out orders into her two-way radio. The drivers inside the trucks come to a halt, swerve, and follow her every command.
Almonds drying in the sun
She waves to me to come and join her under the tarp. I obey.
“So this is where we scatter the almonds to dry,” she says and gestures in a sweeping motion. “Tons and tons and tons of them.” We step out from under the shade. I cast a flat hand over my eyes and scan the endless rows of drying almonds in the sun. I ask her a city-slicker question: “Why don’t you let the almonds dry at the foot of the trees where you shook them off the branches?”
Her face, brown from too much sun, caked with dust, becomes quizzical. She declares the obvious: “What do you think, we live in your California, huh? If I leave the almonds on the ground for more than one day, they’ll be gone the next!” I help her out. “Thieves,” I say. Liora chuckles and says, “Definitely not goats.”
And so begins a massive month-long operation where tons of almonds are harvested at the source, loaded on containers that are loaded onto big trucks that drive to Kibbutz Geva. There, the almonds in their shells are left to dry for days, tossed and re-tossed, collected into bins and delivered to the almond mill just one kilometer away. At the mill the millions of almonds are crushed, the shell extracted. Then they’re sorted by size, grade and quality by Italian-made machinery. The shells ultimately will become feed for cattle. The almonds will be packed and sold to a nuts merchant. Israel’s almond fields are large but they’re dwarfed by California’s (100 times larger!); the world’s number 1 grower and exporter.
Reporting from Galilee
Liora and her husband Allon who’d taken me on an olive tour a couple of years ago make a good living off the land. Unlike California’s Central Valley that relies on rainwater and sporadic drilling, the almond trees in Israel rely on delivered irrigation as well, making them less vulnerable to nature’s whims. But there are other problems: pests, excessive heat, and the bees. “Bees?” I ask Liora. “I thought they’re the good guys that pollinate the blossoms.” Liora speaks of the bees and the trees as if they were her wayward children, worthy of an occasional spanking. She says, “Almond trees are just dumb. They’re stupid! All fruit trees blossom in April. Almonds do it in February, at the peak of winter. Now you show me a bee that wants to freeze its butt off buzzing from one flower to the next?”
Homemade almond milk
I nod, trying to imagine a swarm of bees with frozen butts.
Almonds grown in Israel meet most of the local demand. The rest is imported from California. Whereas California almonds are smaller, rounder, Galilee almonds are longer, meatier, more crunchy. Israel sells almonds to Jordan through a land-bridge and from there to the rest of the Arab world. A prince sitting on a bunch of pillows in the Emirates of the Persian Gulf could be sipping dark, strong tea and not know he’s munching on Israeli almonds.
At home, other than to add a splash to my morning coffee, I gave up on milk several years ago. Instead, we drink homemade almond milk. Its nutrient value is high, it tastes good and it’s easier on the stomach. If it was good enough for Jacob and the Romans, it’s good enough for me.
Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.
He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com
or at BN.com