Biankéta… Almond Tangerine Bites. Puréed blanched almonds flavoured with tangerine rind and juice, sweetened with brown sugar and dusted with confectionery sugar before serving. These wonderful little delights leave a lingering tangerine flavoured scent in your mouth long after you eat them up! Cute little morsels…
The almond (‘amygdalo‘ in Greek, pronounced “AH-MEEG-THA-LOW”) has a long history in Greece. Today, Greece is the fourth largest producer of almonds in the world after the United States, Spain and Italy. The epicentres of Greek almond production are the prefectures of Magnesia, Larisa, Serres and Kavala, and the cultivation of the almond tree is a traditional practice that dates back to ancient times. In the Classical period, almonds were common “dinner ornaments” (αναθήματα δαιτός) and those from the island of Naxos were especially prized. Other centres of almond production in the ancient Greek world included Cyprus, Thasos, Paphlagonia and the Pontus. Indeed, almonds were so common among the Greeks of old that the ancient Lacedaemonian (i.e. Spartan) word for our “nutcracker” was “almond-breaker”.
Although opinions differed as to the nutritional value of the almond -and at what stage of its development it should be consumed- many ancients believed that bitter almonds eaten before a symposium (drinking party) would reduce the intoxicating effects of wine. We have one story related by Plutarch which tells of a physician at the house of Drusus (Tiberius Caesar’s son), who was unbeatable at drinking contests until it was discovered that he would eat several bitter almonds before the start of a party; when he was prevented from doing so, he could not hold his drink any better than the rest of the assembled revellers.
Today, we know that raw almonds are a truly exceptional foodstuff: they are an excellent source of mono unsaturated fatty acids, especially oleic acid, one of the two “good fats” which lower cholesterol levels in the blood; they are a rich source of vitamin E, as well as vitamin B, copper, magnesium, manganese, and riboflavin (B2); they are also a great source of calcium and phosphorus. In addition, almonds are low in saturated fat and are cholesterol free; they are also a superb source of protein, one ounce of almonds (about 23 almonds) provides 6 grams of high quality and easily digestible protein. Finally, as if all that were not enough to turn you into a fan of the humble almond… almonds are a great source of dietary fibre (!).
For Greeks, almonds are also a potent fertility symbol. No Greek wedding would be complete without sugar-candied almonds or ‘koufeta’ [pronounced KOO-FETA] which are often placed on a ceremonial tray along with the bride and groom’s wedding wreaths. According to tradition, single girls and women are encouraged to take one of the koufeta from the tray and place it beneath their pillow that night, whereupon (or so the tradition holds) they will dream of their future husband on the third night thereafter. Koufeta are also given to all the guests at the wedding reception and are usually distributed in a tulle wrapping and often attached to some form of gift or party favour (bomboniere) for the guests. The koufeta are always distributed in odd numbers, usually 5 or 7 per favour as this represents indivisibility. The contrast between the sweetness of the candied exterior and the mild bitterness of the almond within represents the bittersweet duality of married life. The white candy exterior of the koufeta represents purity in the marriage and the shape of the almond represents the union of matter and spirit.
Finally, if the foregoing attributes of the almond are still not enough to make you a fan of this ancient foodstuff, almond trees are also valuable climatic/meteorological instruments as they are among the first trees to blossom at the advent of springtime. As a result, late frosts are the enemy of the almond tree. My grandmother used to point to the almond trees in our village and tell me that when they started to blossom the winter would be over…
In keeping with the almond theme of this article, I wish to share one of my favourite Greek almond treat recipes which originates from the island of Kerkyra (or Corfu), one of the Ionian Islands off the west coast of Greece. This easy to make treat makes an excellent substitute for unhealthy sweets and other junk foods that we tend to feed children or gobble up ourselves when we don’t think about the quality of our nourishment. So, without further comment, allow me to introduce you to the bonne bouche known as: “Biankéta” or as I like to call them: Almond Tangerine Bites.
Biankéta – Almond Tangerine Bites
- 5 tangerines
- ¼ kilo of raw almonds
- 1 cup of brown sugar
- icing sugar
1. Blanche the almonds in boiling water for several minutes and then remove the skins.
2. Boil three (3) of the tangerines in a generous amount of water for five (5) minutes to remove the bitterness of their rind.
3. Squeeze the juice from the remaining two (2) tangerines and set it aside.
4. Peel the three (3) boiled tangerines and put the skins along with the blanched almonds into a blender and puree together until very finely ground.
5. In a large bowl, mix the sugar into the ground almond-tangerine paste and slowly add the tangerine juice while continuing to mix well.
6. Roll small pieces of the mixture into walnut-sized balls using the palms of your hands and set them aside on a sheet of wax paper to dry.
7. Dust lightly with icing sugar before serving. Note: Another serving option would be to cover the ‘bites’ in chocolate for a wonderul variation that is sure to please.