Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 30, 2016

Willunga Almonds, Stories and Recipes, by Helen Bennetts

willunga-almonds-stories-and-recipesOh, look what arrived in the mail today!

The now not-so-humble almond is very fashionable at the moment: almond milk is the latest fad (though it’s not a fad for genuine lactose-intolerant folk) and the gluten-free crowd (who include genuine sufferers of coeliac disease) use almond meal as a substitute for flour, so I have no doubt that Willunga Almonds, Stories and Recipes will be a very popular title indeed.

But for those of us who’ve just always liked almonds, this is a lovely book beyond fads, fashions and life-saving specialty diets.  It tells the story of Willunga in South Australia as an almond growing district, reminding us that there are different varieties of almonds although they are rarely named when we buy them in the supermarket.  And as author Helen Bennetts tells us, they have a proud history in myth, symbolism and folklore:

Greek mythology tells of the Thracian princess Phyllis, who fell in love with Demophon.  He had to leave her to fight in the Trojan wars.  When Troy fell, Phyllis returned time and again to the seashore awaiting Demophon’s return until she finally died of a broken heart.  In sympathy, Athene, the goddess of wisdom, transformed Phyllis into an almond tree. When Demophon, who had been delayed at sea, returned to find Phyllis changed into a leafless tree he embraced the tree and it burst into bloom. (p.14)

That is indeed what almond trees do.  They are a beautiful harbinger of spring, and they celebrate blossom season in Willunga with an Almond Blossom Festival each year.   We would love to have an almond tree in our garden but the book tells us that the trees are picky about where they will grow: they need good drainage, no humidity and most importantly, frost-free conditions.  Where once we could not grow one in Melbourne because of the occasional frost, now with climate change upon us we can’t grow one because of the increased humidity.  The trees mostly don’t self-pollinate, so they need to have companions and orchardists plant more than one variety, often in alternate rows, choosing varieties that blossom at overlapping times.  And once the almonds start to develop the battle with the birds begins:

In Australia, great flocks of corellas, parrots, galahs or cockatoos descend in the early morning and at dusk, turning the orchard into a battleground between farmer and bird.  Over the years many methods have been tried to scare them away: scarecrows, kites, loud noises, shooting.  Now people are trialling drones. (p.26)

Drones!

Almonds are splendidly healthy (except for a small minority of people who are allergic to tree nuts).  The Romans, it seems, believed that eating bitter almonds could counteract drunkenness, but perhaps it’s best not to rely on this when confronted with a breathalyser.   But there is modern research which claims that all kinds of health benefits, though I suspect that weight loss may not be one of them if you binge on the choc-coated variety of almonds which are so very moreish.

Almond trees were planted in SA even before it was proclaimed a colony, many people raising trees with nuts that originally came from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.  Most of these were for domestic use and (strangely, since they’re deciduous trees) as windbreaks.  But by the 1890s there were commercial plantations and by the 1930s almost 70% of Australia’s almonds came from the Sturt River area.  The hero of commercial almond growing is Charles Ragless and his son Kenneth who developed an almond cracker to reduce the labour-intensive business of hand-cracking the almonds.  I Googled Ragless, and found mention of him and his still-standing farmhouse on a site about the Tonsley Park Redevelopment, (a project to develop Tonsley as a new educational, industrial and retail hub now that car manufacturer  Mitsubishi has gone).  The book includes some interesting photos from the 20th century including a photo of Land Army girls at the harvest and some quaint tourism posters as well.

Enough already! if I tell you more you won’t buy the book, and you should because it’s gorgeous, and because you need the recipes.  Not just recipes, also guidance about storing and cooking almonds, and how to make the basics like almond butter, paste. flour, milk etc.  If you are lucky enough to have a Kenwood Triblade (and I say lucky because this brilliant kitchen appliance is, incomprehensibly, now no longer available) you can make your own almond meal in a millisecond and it’s much cheaper, not to mention better-tasting, as anything fresh-made is.  There is probably a cheaper Chinese-made version of a mini food processor that you can buy, but it won’t be as good as a Kenwood, I bet.  (I am still using my Kenwood K-mixer that I got for my 21st birthday!)

Here are some of the recipes, to whet your appetite:

2017-jan-2-spicy-cauliflower-and-almond-soupStarters and soups:

  • Dukkah (have it with some fine SA olive oil and crisp artisan bread, eh?)
  • Olive and almond tapenade
  • A to-die-for soup called Ajo Blanco, also known as white gazpacho (I’m going to try this one for our next heat wave)
  • A #PerfectTiming cauliflower and almond soup (we have caulis ready for harvest in the vegie patch) Update2/7/17 : I cooked this today (see the photo) and it was delicious!
  • a dip called Romesco sauce made with capsicum
  • Salsa all’algresto, adapted from one of Maggie Beer’s recipes with her trademark verjuice, so we know it must be good.

Meat, fish and vegetables

There are variations on the usual stir-fry, pilaf and curry dishes but also:

  • Sicilian rabbit with almonds, adapted from Spring in Sicily by Manuela Darling-Ganssar.  Rabbit is a delicacy these days, but our local paddock-to-plate Berties Butcher can get it for us.
  • an intriguing Escabeche of tommy ruffs – apparently a fish from the southern coastline, it’s also known as Australian herring but I don’t think I’ve ever come across it
  • Smoked Trout, almond and potato salad, perfect for lunches outdoors in the garden
  • Almond Vegetable Tagine made with sweet potato, which looks like a very useful dish when you have vegetarian friends coming for lunch.

The highlight of the recipe section is of course Desserts, cakes and biscuits:

  • Almond blancmange.  No, not like the blancmange we had for school dinners in London.  It’s got Amaretto in it.
  • Almond pannacotta, Almond tart, Pear and frangipane tart.  The photos are irresistible.
  • Almond semifreddo and Almond granita (the semifreddo doesn’t need churning, but you’ll need an ice-cream machine for the granita)
  • Autumn fruit crumble (when quince is in season, yum!)

Then there are the cakes:

  • Sephardic orange and almond cake, yes the one you eat in cafés!
  • Almond sponge with orange syrup
  • a scrumptious-looking Harvest cake but I will have to find somewhere to source shiraz or Grenache grapes (though she says you can use seedless table grapes if all else fails)
  • Almond ricotta cake, LOL obviously ideal for weight watchers
  • Torta de Santiago, a traditional Easter recipe
  • Andrew’s chocolate indulgence cake, only six ingredients!  (I might make this one first) and
  • Apple sauce fruit cake, baked in a loaf tin and with legendary keeping qualities.

Biscuits include

  • Amaretti and Almond bread (swoon!)
  • Almond shortbread, perfect for Christmas baking
  • Chocolate broyage, little choc-flavoured meringues sandwiched together with brandy butter cream or fresh berries and cream
  • Almond fingers, made with filo pastry
  • Finika, a syrupy biscuit of Greek Cypriot origin
  • Almond honey squares (adapted from The French Kitchen Cookbook by Patricia Wells which we have in our recipe book collection.)

There are also other delights like Almond and orange seed bark and Crunchy granola.

Recipes are presented with a clear layout, easy to follow instructions and tempting photos by Ben McGee.  There is also an index though it’s laid out under the chapter headings, which I dislike.  I much prefer an cookbook index to be a straightforward alphabetical index…

I will try to remember to take photos of my efforts in the kitchen!

Update 15/2/17: here’s proof that these recipes work!

  • Spicy cauliflower and almond soup
  • Sephardic orange and almond cake
  • Smoked trout with potatoes and almonds

Author: Helen Bennetts
Title: Willunga Almonds, Stories and Recipes
Photos (mostly) by Ben McGee
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781743054482
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond: Willunga Almonds: Stories + Recipes
and direct from Wakefield Press.


Responses

  1. I would never had thought a book about almonds could be so interesting!

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  2. Love almonds – but oh dear Lisa that orange almond cake is the bane of my Mum’s and my existence because it’s often the only GF option (though things have changed dramatically in the last few years) offered by cafes and we are intolerant of oranges as well. Indeed, it was probably oranges when I was 6 weeks old that set me off down my chronic eczema path. Oranges, as my daughter calls them, are the devil fruit! (However I do have a wonderful Almond Passover Cake recipe which used lemons. How I wish cafes would make it!)

    This book looks good …

    Oh, and I still have my Kenwood Chef Mixer from my twenties – not my 21st. Can’t quite recollect when I got it but I’d say around 25-28. But my, it is a heavy beast isn’t it!!

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    • Yes indeed. I kept it tidy away in a cupboard when I was younger, but lifting it out is getting too hard on the knees so now it lives on the bench. Needless to say I use it more often, especially now that I bake a cake at least once a week for my father.
      Are you ok with lemons? The Almond Ricotta Cake looks nice…

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      • Yes, I can do lemons. Citrus varies greatly. You may know, for example, that you can’t eat grapefruits while taking certain medications, but you can eat normal oranges and lemons. However I can’t have ricotta, so that’s out. (My food regime is very complicated but since following it, for 30 years now on the advice of my GP, I’ve had far fewer bad outbreaks and have made much less use of steroids. People don’t really understand how complicated the food intolerance story is).

        As for the Kenwood. I reckon it’s good weight-bearing exercise! In our previous kitchen which we renovated, we included an appliance cupboard. Loved it. Then we moved to this house which was built around the time we’d done our kitchen and NO appliance cupboard. I was cranky. I hate having appliances on my benches so I just lift it out but, yes, it is a bit of a disincentive. (So far my knees are ok!) I have a handheld mixer that I use for quick mixing, but meringues, for example (which I can eat – just eggs and sugar!) do need the Kenwood.

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        • I find that I need both the Kenwood mixer and the mini one when I’m making ice-cream. I need the big mixer to mix the egg yolks, and then I use the beater on the mini one to whip the egg whites.
          I suppose it must be frustrating to find that most of what’s in a recipe book isn’t any use to you…

          Liked by 1 person

          • It is … and yet I find it hard to part with them because of the memories. 80% or more of my recipe books are over 30 years old. These days it’s much easier to use the internet, and there are more products around like, say, quinoa which can add variety to cooking, not to mention all the different “milks”. All my cooking is with soy-milk. The family loves my soy milk custard. I’m not coeliac so I don’t have to worry about specks of gluten in the kitchen when we go out, thank goodness. I just have to be careful about overloading the system.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll forward this review on to my daughter who goes to a lot of trouble to keep her kids on a natural diet. No numbers! Though the problem is if she likes it I’ll be the one who has to buy it.

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    • Good for her! I did pretty much the same for The Offspring – not Paleo or any of that nonsense, just food made from scratch without all those stabilisers and preservatives, and I’m still doing pretty much the same now though I weakened over some mince pies from Aldi…
      My bible was Let’s Eat Right by Adele Davis, probably not available now, and full of earth-mother mumbo-jumbo but the message was, use unprocessed food.

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  4. Yum! I love all things almond so this is definitely for me. It sounds a fascinating read.

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    • I’ll be hitting the kitchen as soon as I’ve recovered from the festive season indulgence:)

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