It's that fairytale time of year again. The floral fiesta is in full bloom, with the Algarve’s almond trees once again taking the limelight - or, should I say, given these glorious sunny days we are having at the time of writing - the sunlight.

Almond trees have been grown in the Algarve for centuries, and these beautiful buds are, according to the Lenda das Amendoeiras (the legend of the almond trees), the snow of the Algarve.

Once upon a time

The story dates back to the Moorish occupation and tells of how, once upon a time, the Arab king fell in love with a beautiful, golden-haired, Nordic princess. They married in the summer, but when winter rolled around, the queen began to pine for her snow-covered homeland. The king saw how upset she was and, in what could be said to be the ultimate romantic gesture (just in time for St. Valentine's Day), ordered almond trees to be planted throughout the kingdom.

Author: Jake Cleaver;

His team of diligent botanists followed his royal decree, and on a sunny day in February, when the sky was its deepest Algarve blue, the king took his queen to the top of the castle where they were able to look out onto the fields of trees in bloom. The wind blew some of the petals off the branches, and as they whirled and swirled around them, the queen couldn’t help but be reminded of the snow-covered land of her childhood. She began to feel more at home, and they lived happily ever after.

Culinary landscape

The king's romantic gesture to cheer up his Nordic queen by changing the countryside around them also had the unintended, yet delightful, consequence of transforming the culinary landscape as well.

Author: Jake Cleaver;

The people of the kingdom loved the blossom but also the almonds that came later! Indeed, as I’m writing this, I’m happily munching on a dried fig star filled with almonds. But this is by no means the only delicious treat that we get to enjoy thanks to his majesty. Almonds are a cherished ingredient in a variety of Portuguese dishes.

Almonds are one of the healthiest nuts you can eat. You can eat them raw or toasted. They can be ground into a paste and used to make marzipan and are used in a variety of desserts, cakes, sweets, and bread. There’s also almond milk, and almond flour, and they are a rich source of oil which you can drizzle on your salad but is also used in cosmetics, aromatherapy, and perfumes.

Author: Jake Cleaver;

The bitter truth

Almonds come in two varieties: sweet and bitter. You may remember plucking an almond from a tree and cracking it open only to discover that it tastes horrible. This is, as you may have deduced, a bitter almond. A far more pleasant way to discover which trees are bitter and sweet is to observe and take notes about the trees around you at the moment…

You see, almond blossoms come in two colours: ‘Snow White’ (that is what that king had in mind when he wanted to cheer up his homesick queen) but there’s also the stunning pink variety—these produce the bitter almonds.

You don’t want to eat too many of them as they contain cyanide, which, if you’ve ever watched a spy movie, will know you should really avoid. That said, they do lose their toxicity when cooked. They can be used for almond extract, almond oil, and liqueurs. Here in Portugal, they are used to make a bitter almond liqueur called Licor de Amêndoa Amarga.

Author: Jake Cleaver;

Sandcastles over Snowmen

Being born and raised here in the Algarve, these blossoms have been the only snow I’ve ever known. It was, therefore, quite a shock when I came into contact with the real stuff when I was in Germany for Christmas. It's cold, you know? And slippery! Making snowmen gives you frostbite, and being hit by a snowball when it's minus 8ºC isn’t as much fun as they make it look in the movies. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed myself immensely, and it is an enchantingly beautiful winter wonderland, and I can see what the queen was missing—but I’m happy to be home with the sandcastles and almond blossoms.

I think we all have a lot to thank the king for and should get out into the countryside and enjoy these magic few weeks before the wind blows and the ‘snow melts.’