Almond processing is a process that combines ancient knowledge with modern technology to obtain a high quality finished product without affecting the organoleptic characteristics typical of Sicilian almonds. That being said, it is important to emphasize that there are different ways of handling the processing phases throughout the world, and below will be described some of the methods currently used in Sicily:
Harvesting is done between august and september (Depending on variety) and can be done with:
– Traditional method (Beating), which consists of spreading large nets under the trees and, with the help of long wooden sticks, energetically striking the branches so as to drop the almonds. Then, with the help of longer sticks, the remaining almonds, especially the tall ones, are dropped. Scour the area around the nets, check if there are any almonds that fall outside, then fill the bags, which are centered in a special area to make the small size.
– Mechanized harvesting: Since there are many mechanized harvesting machines in the world (As there are different management systems), it is to be said that, regardless of the machine used, it is the method that significantly reduces the costs of production, in spite of a substantial initial investment due to the reduced labor force employed. That being said, one of the widespread systems is through a machine equipped with a shrinking arm that, engaging the trunk of the plant, vibrates and drops the almonds on a mesh placed underneath, or inside a reverse umbrella, then sacked or cumulated in a box. Subsequently, the almonds are conveyed to a smaller area.
The first operation after harvesting is the hulling. It is a fundamental step in the machining process, as it allows to separate the almond from the green jumble that adheres to the shell and facilitates its drying process. This operation was done by hand, while today it is carried out with the help of specific machines (Huller machine or “scrucchiolatrice”), which facilitate this phase. They work electrically or through the traction of a tractor and, by inserting the almonds inside the hopper, are conveyed inside a conical chamber, the walls of which have slits and at the center a shaft with brushes. The shaft rotation causes a reciprocal friction, causing the mechanical detachment of the models and falling them through the slits, while small almonds directly out of the conical chamber terminal, ready to be dried. If necessary, the operation is repeated again for partially or totally non-small almonds.
After hulling, almonds have a high amount of moisture present in the shell and in the inner seed, thus proceeding to drying. It can be done naturally, exposing almonds in the sun for 3-4 days or with the help of special industrial dryers. In the case of applying the natural method, the almonds exposed to the sun are laid on ground cloths and during the day they are turned, so as to favor drying. During the night, to protect them from moisture, they are either sawn and placed in a dry place or covered with a waterproof cloth. The optimal percentage of almond internal moisture is when it reaches a value that does not exceed 10%. One way to understand if almond is ready is to pick some of them and shake them with a fist. If you hear the seed blow that blows the walls inside the shell, it means it has reached an optimum level of humidity.
This is done with the help of calibration machines (They usually have a loading hopper that drives the product onto slightly sloping truncated rollers that, by turning in opposite directions, slip the almond until the distance between the rolls becomes such that allow the almond to pass according to the size) in order to select the almond according to the different pieces, whether it is to be marketed in shell or to optimize the shelling operation (Always if the scraper machine used to do so), so as to reduce the quantities of broken or uncooked almonds.
This operation was done by hand, while today, through the aid of sewing machines/separators. The shelling is carried out by means of a mechanical process, by means of rotating rollers which, by compression, crush the almond. Subsequently the mass of seed and crushed shells is separated by a suction system and vibrating planes, which favor almost the entire selection of shelled almonds.
After the shelling operation, the almond passes through optical selectors, which recognize the presence of foreign bodies or other, by removing the remaining slags from the previous processing. In any case, after this stage, the almonds pass through a selection bank, where specialized operators make a last check before the next step.
At this point, almond is defined as “mass” (Mixed, all the calibres together) and, before being packed or subjected to a subsequent processing step, is calibrated (For almond caliber is the hole measurement for the width, expressed in millimeters) by means of a system of vibrating planks (Vibrating rods) which, with perforated grids of different sizes, select the shelled almonds according to their size (For example, for the 34/36 gauge, the 11- 14 mm, for the 36/37 gauge the hole 14-15 mm, and so on). American almonds use a different system, since the caliber is indicative of the number of almonds needed to weigh an ounce (28.35 grams) (For example, the 23/25 caliber indicates that from 23/25 almonds to get an ounce).
Peeling consists in removing the brown coat (Tegumento). This operation is carried out through a peeling machine which, after burning for a few minutes at about 90°C, the almond passes through smooth rollers which, by friction with the seed, remove the film. Subsequently, it is subjected to forced drying for a couple of hours and cooled suddenly, so as not to absorb moisture. Subsequently, the almonds, after further quality control, are ready to be packaged or to be subjected to other processing (As shown in the diagram).