Spain

The beauty of southern Spain’s almond blossom

Every spring, millions make a pilgrimage to Japan for the cherry blossom season. It’s preceded by a different but equally magical display in the mountains of southern Spain. It’s almond time, and CHRIS STEWART feels a haiku coming on

There’s a lot to be said for cherry blossom… and then there’s the cherries: that marvellous explosion of complex sweetness in your mouth is like nothing else on Earth. But then, of course, you shouldn’t forget the peach, the glorious peach; a fruit with something of the morphology of the perfect bottom, to say nothing of its texture. To bite into the flesh of a peach is, I would say, one of those rare everyday experiences that approaches the sublime. But then… what about the plum? And its shrivelled friend, the laxative prune? The ambrosial apricot, too, with its intensely satisfying dried incarnation (orejón in Spanish) like thick, sweet ears. But I am getting carried away by this fruity reverie. It’s winter, you see, and there’s not that much fruit about.

The aforementioned bunch are members of the Prunus family: the sweet and juicy members. Out at the nut end of the Prunus family is Prunus amygdalus or Prunus dulcis, the almond.

I have a soft spot for almonds because they are one of the most dazzling elements of the landscape that surrounds me. They also changed my life.

‘The black branches hold the clouds of blossom gently, until the rain comes’ – Anonymous

Almond blossom

Thirty years ago in February, I arrived in a Spanish valley when the almond trees were in full blossom. I had never seen anything quite so beautiful, and so, throwing thoughtful judgement to the wind, I bought a house – probably the best decision I have ever made.

When I began to write at 45, in the twilight of life, one of the first things I was inspired to write about was an almond orchard in blossom. I was helping a friend build his house, and during the course of the day I passed countless times with a wheelbarrow through this little patch of paradise. I thought how wonderful it would be to paint the blossom, to find some way to consummate the overwhelming feeling of delight that the phenomenon produced in me.

And then I went on to think that the man who would really achieve consummation would be the one who set the orchard out, sowed the bitter almonds in the soil, nurtured them as they grew to sapling height and then grafted on the sweet almond buds. Later he would plough and cultivate the land around each tree so that what scant rain there was would seep down deeply to the roots. He would spread a circle of rich dung for each tree, and soon start to prune to give the tree the form he desired – open enough so that a bird could fly through the crown, giving space and air and light to aid the development of the buds and the flowers and the fruit. And finally he would come
down to his almond orchard in the evening, sit on a stone and roll a cigarette of home-grown churrasco. As the plume of pale blue smoke curled up into the still air he would contemplate the glory of the pink and white clouds of his almond trees in blossom. It’s perfect human felicity.

You could do this with cherry trees, but for me the almond is the one. Almonds are hardier than cherries: they will survive hellish heat and long years of drought; they favour the wilder places where the soil is so poor that only the real desperados of the plant kingdom (capers, wild cabbage) would think of putting down roots. You can see the agony of the long, hot summers in the crazed contortions of their black branches and trunks. And speaking of black trunks, one of the wonders of the Prunus family is that the blossom comes before the leaves, so, in the case of the almond, you have the most delicate flowers through all shades of pink and white, glowing against the deep black of the wood. It’s aesthetic perfection.

You’ll forgive me, but I feel a haiku coming on. It’s what the contemplation of blossom does to you.

‘Palest petals float in a mist against the darkness of wet black wood.’

I apologise – it’s not even a good haiku. Although at least it has the required 17 syllables. I’m not good at haikus.

‘The trouble with the haiku is that once you get started you run out…’

Almond blossom

I am told that during the spring months, when the cherries blossom in Japan, it is impossible to get a seat on an eastbound aircraft, because so many people go to help the Japanese contemplate their cherry blossom. It’s called hanami, literally ‘flower viewing’. Apparently it gets very crowded and noisy, which is not at all what you need for proper contemplation. Older and wiser folks very sensibly slip away on their own to contemplate plum blossom instead. It’s quieter, but the truth is that plum blossom does not have the spectacular profusion of cherry blossom – or almond blossom, for that matter.

I propose that instead you come to the Alpujarra, in the province of Granada in southern Spain. You’ll virtually be on your own. From February to March the hills and folds of the Contraviesa, the range of mountains that protects us from the sea, are cloaked with clouds of flowering almonds, tended by hosts of blue-black carpenter bees, and filling the warm spring air with the most delicate and subtle of scents. And all this ineffable beauty has its being in the maddest of wild, untamed landscapes. Nobody has seen fit to develop the Alpujarra, and long may it last.

In Japan the convention is to sit on a blue tarpaulin beneath the trees, nibbling on exquisite seafood and taking the occasional nip of sake to the subdued, refined accompaniment of the three-string shamisen. To achieve in modern times the full measure of bliss that successful contemplation confers is frankly almost impossible, for the plaintive shamisen has been replaced by the bluetooth speaker, the sushi and sake by crisps and beer, and the crowds of contemplators are as dense as the petals on the tree.

In the Alpujarra you will be alone, which is so much more conducive to proper contemplation. Take a Moroccan rug and some cushions, a bottle of wine from Laujar de Andarax and a friend. Cool the wine in the Cádiar River that curls along the foot of the blossoming hills. Start your picnic with a bowl of ajo blanco, the soup brought about by some miraculous alchemy of garlic, oil, water and almonds. A few peeled moscatel grapes floating on the surface make this simple dish perfect. Finish with one or more of the exquisite almond pastries still made locally, part of the Moorish heritage. It was the Moors who brought us the almond from the East in the first place. After lunch you can recline on the cushions and do hanami.

Ephemeral beauty will inevitably be your theme; make the most of it.

Cathay Pacific flies direct from Hong Kong to Madrid. The almond blossom in best viewed in January and February.

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