Mandorla or mennula: that is the question

La mennulara”, the debut novel by Simonetta Agnello Hornby (Feltrinelli 2002), tells the tale of a Sicilian almond picker. For a brief, but not too brief length of time around March, the soft Sicilian hills put on their robes of white and resound to the chants of the almond gatherers. Mennulare is the local word for this profession, stemming from the Italian for almond, mandorla.

For various socio-cultural reasons this annual ritual has almost disappeared, in large part thanks to agricultural mechanization, but also thanks to the waning numbers of almond trees. Until the 1960s, Italy was the leading almond producer in the world – in the world! Anyone visiting Italy in late winter or early spring, especially in the more southern areas, could not fail to see and smell the fragrant beauty of its blossom. My own eyes have been lucky enough to witness the almonds blooming in the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento, one warm Sicilian February. It was like a snapshot of paradise.

As the old, old almond trees at Agrigento prove, the almond is an extremely long-lived plant. Like many other fructifers, it belongs to the rose family, in the drupaceous subgroup. Indeed, it’s closely related to the peach, despite its smaller leaves and whiter blossom.

It’s the seeds of the almond tree that we eat, that is, the almond itself, husk and all. It’s a plant that ticks all “diversity and inclusion” boxes: originating in Asia, it spread through Ancient Greece and Rome, and thence through all the Mediterranean, where it split into several different cultivars. And if you want to really understand how widespread almond farming really is, just have a look at how they’re used in cooking. After all, they pop up in bakeries more or less across the globe. To focus solely on the Old World, we could mention Lübeck marzipan in the same breath as Sienese ricciarelli and Sicilian frutta martorana: all mouth-watering sweets based on almond flour.

But almonds can be put to endless good use: almond flour, almond paste, dried almonds...but we shouldn’t forget how delicious they are straight off the tree, popped out of their outer shell and opened with an almond-cracker. And we haven’t even mentioned almond milk, or almond-flavoured ice cream. And I’m forgetting so many other things, without a doubt.

And like virtually all fruits, almonds do us a world of good. Rich in vitamins (especially B and E), they are also packed with Omega 3 fatty acids and mineral salts.

So, there’s nothing left to say, except let’s enjoy these days when the almonds are blooming and sweetening the air. Let’s drink deep of their perfumes, and savour their fruits on the tongue.


"My roots taste of powder, of dust,
of almonds in blossom,
of well-tended gardens."

[Alda Merini]