A few years ago, a friend sent me a bag of almonds without any explanation beyond, "You must try these." I've eaten my share of the nuts, but these looked special: tawny, with an especially broad, flat shape. I tore open the bag, which was plain apart from a sticker bearing the name of the producer, Mastri di San Basilio, and popped one in my mouth. The husk was smooth and dry, and the flesh, moist and tender. First, I tasted hints of milk, but by the time I was done chewing, the flavor had expanded into a strong essence of marzipan. I'd always wondered at the taste of almond extract, as none of the nuts I'd tried possessed those distinctive floral, bittersweet notes. Yet here was an almond that really measured up.
I tracked down Francesco Padova, who, along with his brother, Salvatore, and his sister, Maria Angela, owns San Basilio, a 180-acre farm in southern Sicily, near the Mediterranean Sea. There, his family has been cultivating pizzuta di Avola, an heirloom variety of almond, for four generations. The hardy breed was championed by the 19th-century botanist Giuseppe Bianca to promote an alternative to wine growing in Sicily, where insects had been wiping out vineyards. Francesco credits the nuts' high oil content, as well as the area's calcium-rich soil, for their unique taste. In this sultry part of Italy, the nearly constant sunshine concentrates the nuts' flavor, while the seaside humidity provides enough moisture to offset the need for irrigation. Though less water translates to a lower yield, says Francesco, it also means more intense flavor.
Over the years, these almonds have stood out as some of the most elegant snacks I have eaten, and with the holidays upon us, my thoughts turn to them. They make an ideal gift, a fine thing to nibble on with wine and cheese, and a decadent addition to baked goods—they impart an unforgettable aroma to biscotti, and can be ground into flour for a fragrant sponge cake. But more than anything, I like to eat them out of hand, to fully savor their richness and delicate perfume. A 7.5-ounce box of Mastri di San Basilio pizzuta di Avola almonds costs $25, plus shipping. Visit zingermans.com.