Saturday, July 28, 2012


Almonds on the tree.

Once upon a time, there were no tomatoes in Spain. Tomatoes, of New World origin, were unknown in pre-Columbian Europe. (What ever did the Italians put on their pasta?) But there was still gazpacho, or its progenitor, a smooth cream of pounded bread and olive oil, flavored with garlic and almonds.

That white gazpacho, ajo blanco, is still a summertime favorite, especially in Málaga (southern Spain), where it is a traditional dish.

In a collection of recipes from Málaga, Papeles de Gastronomia Malagueña, the writer Enrique Mapelli recounts how making ajo blanco was a summertime ritual. In the late afternoon, village women would sit in their doorways with the almirez, a brass mortar, pounding garlic, almonds and bread to a smooth paste. Olive oil beaten into the paste creates a thick emulsion, to be thinned with vinegar and cold water and—the final touch—sweet moscatel grapes plucked from an arbor on the patio.

The basic oil and bread emulsion is the starting point for all authentic gazpacho, even the one with tomatoes. (see that recipe here).

Freshly shelled almonds.
Ajo blanco literally means, “white garlic.” It’s usually made with ground almonds, garlic, bread, olive oil and vinegar and garnished with grapes. Early in the summer, it is made with “green” almonds, those still on the trees which have not yet formed hard shells. In the springtime, pounded fava beans are used in place of almonds. And in the pine forests of the marismas, wetlands, pine nuts are used in place of almonds.

The almonds on the trees in my garden are maturing very early this year. Already the outer green husks are splitting open. Within a few weeks, the almonds in their shells will drop to the ground. I gather them for keeping through the winter, for making cookies, thickening sauces, noshing.

Blanched almonds, garlic and bread for ajo blanco.
Right now, I’m making ajo blanco. Tangy, salty, creamy, cold—it is better than the sum of its parts. The sweet grapes make a brilliant contrast of flavors. A bit exotic, ajo blanco surprises.

My grandson Leo cracked the almond shells for me (a 50-centimo job). Then I plunged them in boiling water for 30 seconds. While still warm, it’s easy to slip off the outer skins of the almonds, leaving the white nuts.

The traditional version of ajo blanco is made with mortar and pestle, but it’s quickly confected with a food processor or blender. For a really smooth version, the mixture can be sieved. But I rather like the graininess of almonds ground in a blender.

Sweet moscatel grapes are the traditional garnish, but seedless grapes can be used instead, or substitute diced melon or apples.

Serve ajo blanco in bowls as a starter, or in shot glasses to pass around at a party.

Ajo blanco shooters, great party food.
Ajo Blanco con Uvas en Copitas
White Gazpacho Shooters with Grapes

Makes 10 shot-glass servings.

6 slices day-old bread, crusts removed (6 ounces)
1 cup blanched and skinned almonds
2-3 cloves garlic
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
5 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups water
10 grapes

Soak the bread in water to cover until it is softened. Squeeze out the water and place in food processor or blender with the almonds and garlic. Pulse until the almonds are finely ground.

With the motor running, add the oil in a slow stream, then the vinegar and salt. Blend in some of the water, then pour the mixture into a pitcher and add remaining water.

Chill until serving time. Stir before serving. Pour into shot glasses. Spear grapes on cocktail picks and place in each glass. 

(Full disclosure: grapes are sinkers, not floaters. To show them bobbing on top of the ajo blanco, I propped them up on toothpicks!)

Ajo blanco con uvas, a delectable summer gazpacho.


  1. I make this frequently, favorite cold soup bar none.

  2. Ed: Yes! better than the sum of its parts, totally wonderful.

  3. Was served this wonderful soup tonight by my hostess, which she garnished with roasted almond pieces. Absolutely delicious with green apple and grapes included in the recipe.

    1. Polly: Wonderful! Roasted almonds and green apples sound like a good addition to the basic recipe.