Almonds are a modest nut. They nestle at the bottom of baskets of seasonal whole nuts, happy to make way for attention-grabbing walnuts, easy-going hazelnuts and posh pecans. We only notice the almonds at the end of a nut-cracking session, buried under heaps of broken shells, along with a few unwanted Brazil nuts. However, most nut-cracking connoisseurs when presented with a small stack of freshly cracked almonds, readily admit that almonds are the jewel in the nut basket crown.
The bible corroborates this, mentioning that almonds are among the “finest of fruits” (for indeed, the almond is a seed of a fruit and not a nut).
Part of the allure of the almond is its shape. The surface geometry is pure and simple, devoid of the walnut’s or hazelnut’s irregular gnarls and knobs, the almond is unfussy, clean and smooth – a perfect, well – almond shape. A little more acute than an oval and not quite as asymmetrical as a teardrop. Technically speaking, the almond is an amygdaliform, but most people refer to the shape as almond-shaped, as in almond eyes.
However, the real attraction of an almond is the taste. Overall, the flavour is pleasantly mild and sweet, but also bittersweet. Hiding in the background is a definite musky and exotic perfume – perhaps evoking the sultry and scented bazars of Persia and the Middle East, the native lands of the almond.
These days, almonds grow throughout the world and have become the world’s most popular nut (according to world production numbers for nuts grown on trees). The largest producer of almonds is my home state of California. The fertile soils and Mediterranean climate provide ideal growing conditions and support a multi-billion dollar industry. However, not all is well. The vast almond groves would be infertile without the seasonal importation of over a million beehives from across America to pollinate the trees. Unfortunately, the bees are suffering from colony collapse disorder, resulting in a decline in bees – and almonds. Science has helped by developing a self-pollinating almond tree. Of course, they say the almonds are not a good as the insect-pollinated original.
Like all nuts, almonds are full of nutrients, including antioxidants and vitamins. It is said almonds can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels – and even help control weight. For these reasons, almonds have acquired a notional ‘health food’ status. They are usually the first nut included in granola ‘health’ bars or bags of muesli and they are often bought as oils and butters in health food shops. However, their most prominent ‘health’ food manifestation is almond milk. The almond’s mild milky qualities are ideally suited for processing into an alternative to dairy milk, ideal for those that are lactose intolerant, or vegan. However, as much as I like almonds, I think I’ll pass on the almond milk.
Almonds appear in savoury and sweet recipes around the world and are often adopted into regional specialties. The Middle East is famous for its syrup and nut pastries. These can be quite dry – but eaten at the right time with a strong coffee they can hit just the right note.
Almonds are widely grown and consumed in Spain. They are used in the ever-popular Romesco sauce, they are crushed to thicken casseroles and feature in the delicious Santiago tart. The Spanish also make ajo blanco, a cold almond soup. Keith Floyd, one of the original TV chefs, made this on camera, outdoors in Spain. During his frantic mixing of ingredients and desperate attempts to persuade the audience that his soup really was worth making, he inadvertently made gallons of soup as he kept adjusting ingredients and adding more and more liquids – I’ve no doubt that the this is one recipe the crew did not finish off. Just as the fine qualities of retsina can only be appreciated when in Greece, it may be that you can only appreciate cold almond soup when in Spain. However, I have made ajo blanco in London and found it to be very good.
France makes nougat from almonds, but is better known for turning the nuts into fancy macarons or frangipane, an almond-based mix, featured in all types of pastries and tarts. They also make my favourite ‘pick-me-up’ before early morning business meetings, the almond croissant.
Italy has panforte, but is more famous for turning almonds into other delightful things, such as the beautifully smooth, hard white candy for giving away at weddings, paper-wrapped amaretti biscuits, almond cantucci and a liqueur we are never without, Amaretto Disaronno. The quintessentially distinctive almond taste in amaretti is created from essence of bitter almonds. These more bitter nuts are produced on one variant of an almond tree and are not processed for consumption, however, they are processed into bitter almond oil, a flavouring and supposed panacea for a number of ailments. There is a dangerous compound in the oil, which is removed in its manufacture. So, my little bottle of bitter almond oil, which I use for making amaretti is perfectly safe. Given this confidence, I tried a single drop on my tongue and nearly hit the roof. The oil is incredibly intense, like a thousand almonds – with all their bitterness – reduced into a single drop. Wow! This is why the instructions say use sparingly.
My own culinary weakness is marzipan. I go woobly at the very thought of it. The German nation clearly shares my delirium, as they produce many shameless confections full of marzipan. In its most essential interpretation, a thin layer of dark chocolate will cover a large slab of marzipan, or it might form the thick core of a stollen cake, traditionally eaten during Advent.
In Britain, almonds appear in Bakewell tarts, which is a type of frangipane tart made with jam and as a thin covering for Mountbatten cakes. The bakeries of old would always feature almond macaroons – sometimes made with coconut instead of almonds, but always decorated with an almond. Marzipan is also used as a thick covering for dark fruitcakes, which is then finished with a fondant icing. I am always happy to receive a large plate of this type of cake – it then becomes a simple matter of discarding the cake and fondant and picking out the marzipan for eating.
The flagship American almond confectionery is Hershey’s Almond bar – a chocolate bar with added whole almonds. Also made by the same company is Mounds Almond Joy – a coconut and chocolate bar topped with chocolate-coated almonds (always my favourite part). The almonds may taste like almonds, but outside America, the chocolate does not. Hershey’s process their milk to prevent fermentation, which gives the chocolate an unusual tang…
Of our family’s many signature dishes, perhaps the most highly regarded – and fondly remembered – is ‘mum’s amaretti cake’. Mrs WDC discovered the recipe in one of my American cookbooks many years ago. Since then it has formed the highlight of all our family birthday celebrations. Everybody loves it. Oh, and it’s full of almonds!
So, next time you are rustling through the basket of seasonal nuts looking for something good to crack, choose an almond, for there is much to admire in this modest nut.