Sunday, September 21, 2014

Almonds And Underwear: Saint Matthew

They were getting their kit off in Bunyola yesterday. Not all of it. Decorum demands that underwear remains, and the invention of a modern tradition turns such decorum into an event - "correguda en ropa interior", the run in underwear, though it might be noted that correguda does also mean something else. It is probably best that I don't mention what. It was the tenth staging of the bra, panties and pants party, it having been started by a group of the town's "jóvenes" in 2005. (Well, you wouldn't have expected the town's "ancianos" to have initiated such an event.)

Saint Matthew, he of Apostle fame, was not noted for parading around in his boxers or revealing Calvin Kleins. It is doubtful that he would have approved of the Bunyola brassiere bout, but modernity decrees that antique apostles are stripped down and varnished with baby oil. In Bunyola, at any rate. It's the Sant Mateu fiestas, but knickers to old Matthew and all hail the new saint - a hip dude Matt or Matty in Modus Vivendi.

Matthew was many things in terms of his saintly patronage, but the list of his sponsorship did not stretch to underwear or indeed to almonds. In Santa Margalida, where barely a week seems to pass without some fiesta or other, they're at it again, and this time they've run Saint Matthew up the fiestas' flagpole and given him a delicious bag of sugar-coated almonds to munch on.

This is the almond harvesting season, and Santa Margalida has, since 2012, combined a fiesta which had been paid little attention to in the town - Matthew's - with the almond and come up with its "mostra de l'ametla", a grand almond show. It is a town which has a strong interest in the success or not of the almond harvest, as was highlighted in 2012 when there were genuine concerns about the health of the local almond trees. These were anxieties caused by the presence of a fungus that had been attacking the trees and which first really became evident on the island in 2008. It is a disease which has principally affected trees in the Llevant region, especially around Sant Llorenç. Decaying trees in Santa Margalida were more the victim of drought rather than fungus, but the concerns raised two years ago led to a greater awareness of the need to pay trees, especially older ones, rather more TLC than had been the case.

The almond tree has long been a feature of the Mallorcan landscape, and it is of course especially so when it is in blossom in February, but the almond only really became an agricultural force in the nineteenth century when almonds as a crop gained popularity once farming land was reorganised into smaller plots. In 1820, there was negligible almond production, but forty years later almost 6,000 hectares were devoted to its cultivation. Mallorca's almond production contributed to Spain being the world leader, a status that was lost in the late 1970s when the US, and in particular California, overtook Spain as the dominant global producer of almonds. Competition and the enduring impact of old provisions under the Common Agricultural Policy wreaked havoc with Mallorca's almonds as much as any disease. In a period of only six years from 2005, agricultural land devoted to almond production was slashed by over a half.

Great efforts have been made to at least stabilise the situation, and with some success. There has been very little loss of further cultivated land, but the disease has not made stabilisation any easier, especially when carobs, as an alternative crop, have been unaffected. The Santa Margalida fair has to be seen, therefore, within the context of these various threats to the almond and to food-manufacture traditions that it has brought. And one of the most obvious traditions is that of ice-cream. At the fair today there is a workshop devoted to the making of almond ice-cream.

It's hard to place an exact date on when ice-cream manufacture started in Mallorca, but in the eighteenth century it was being made for the Can Joan de s'Aigo chocolate and ice-cream parlour in Palma. The original Sr. de s'Aigo, so the story goes, used to get ice and snow from the Tramuntana mountains and mix it with almond milk. Nowadays, almond ice-cream is a mainstay of the ice-cream freezers of the island's supermarkets.

Yesterday evening in Santa Margalida there was a procession of lanterns for Saint Matthew. They were made from melons and pumpkins and not from almonds - it would be pretty tricky to do so, just as it would be tricky to make underwear from almonds. Saint Matthew has provided the pretext for fiesta events that have nothing whatsoever to do with him, but forget Matthew and concentrate on the almonds. All day today in Santa Margalida there will be special almond dishes as part of its "Picametla" gastronomy event.

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