Yes, it’s true. Contrary to popular belief, almonds are not – botanically speaking – nuts. They come from the rosacea family, a group including nectarines, plums, apricots and olives; the fruit of which are called drupes. To compare the two, nuts are composed of a shell and a seed, whereas drupes are a stone surrounded by edible flesh. Unlike with other drupes, however, you eat the inside kernel of almonds, as opposed to the outside flesh.
There are two types of almonds: bitter and sweet. Depending on the variety, they may have paper thin shells, soft, crack-able casings, or a hard, tough exterior. Sweet almonds – the type we’re accustomed to eating – are common and readily available. America has a very strong almond industry, with most coming from California. Australia isn’t far behind. Here, we grow almonds all along the Murray River, from South Australia to Victoria, and Swan River in WA.
Bitter almonds, on the other hand, are mostly grown in Spain and have a slightly broader and shorter appearance. Their distinctive bitterness gives them an intense aroma, and makes them ideal for flavouring oils, essences and confectionaries. Scarily, the almonds’ bitterness comes from traces of cyanide in the kernel. This means the raw drupe can be poisonous and potentially fatal. Don’t panic though; the volatile compounds which make the almond dangerous are rendered useless once heated. I’ve also been led to believe they taste so bitter you would need to be very dedicated to eat enough to actually kill you.
The bees and the blossoms
Although almond trees are native to the Middle East and South Asia, where you will find many wild varieties, they do best in Mediterranean climates. Despite their background, almond trees are happiest with wet winters, dry springs and hot summers. The trees are not self-pollinating and need the help of bees to continue their lifecycle. Propagation must occur between two almond tree varieties and when sweet and bitter types cross, bitter wins out. Almond trees start bearing fruit within the first couple of years, but it takes about eight years before they fully mature. At this stage, they need lots of water to flourish.
After the harvest, almond trees remain dormant from May to July, with flowers emerging at the end of winter and very beginning of spring. The early blossoming of the almond tree – though beautiful – is fraught with danger. If the trees are hit with any late winter frost, their flowers shrivel and dry, preventing fruit from forming. If they survive, the flowers last for a few weeks or so, before the trees bear fruit resembling little knobs of almond-shaped fuzziness.
Heralding the beginning of spring, almond blossoms have historically been laden with symbolism; said to represent everything from fertility and birth to wealth, happiness and a long life. These meanings play a role in the Italian tradition of giving sugared almonds to guests at weddings. Additionally, the sugar coating is said to be a metaphor for the bittersweet nature of marriage.
Blossoms are also a recurring theme in art, especially traditional Japanese wood-block printings. It’s believed the flowers’ short and fragile existence represents the transience of life. Van Gogh immortalised the almond blossom in a series of still life paintings, giving one to his brother Theo – a new father – to signify the creation of life.
Hard to crack
Once summer hits, the hull turns from green to grey, splitting and slowly widening until the hard shell becomes visible. The kernel then hardens and dries until the end of summer harvest, at which point the almonds are stored and dried even further.
If you wish to utilise almonds that are still young and soft, you need to catch them in November before the shell has a chance to toughen up. At this stage, the husk is more green than grey and the inside of the kernel is clear and jelly-like. These young almonds are a little time consuming to prepare, but they’re very delicious and especially excellent to pickle.
Working like a nut
Although not technically a nut, in culinary terms almonds are used as such. Like many other nuts, they have a very high oil content. Almonds should be stored in airtight containers at room temperature or in the freezer. If stored incorrectly, not only can the oil turn rancid, the almonds may also absorb other flavours and smells, rendering them unusable. Once you get past their frail nature, you’ll find almonds are high in vitamin E. They’re also a delicious and healthy source of energy, in moderation of course.
Almonds are bought and used in many forms. They may come as a meal, whole, blanched or in various shapes, such as flaked and slivered. Almond milk has become a very popular health food product, but ironically it’s actually not great for the environment. It is a very water-heavy commodity, requiring lots of water both in growing the almond trees and in making the milk.
The edible kernel
Traditionally, almonds have featured in many sweet preparations. The meal has been used to make marzipan since Persian times. Many European cultures lay claim to the sweet almond treat, which is why you’ll find marzipan in food customs all over the continent, from the small, painted fruit-shaped figurines of Italy to England’s traditional Christmas cake covering. Almond meal is also found in many classic French biscuits, including macaroons and financiers, as well as the slightly chewy amaretti biscuits of Italy. In savoury cooking, almonds are more often found in the cuisines of the Middle East. Dishes like pilaf and tagine spring to mind. I find that whole toasted almonds are a great addition to many recipes – from salads to mueslis – adding an excellent texture and tasty, roasted flavour.
Another great application of almonds is in Amaretto, a rather delicious Italian almond liqueur. Originally it was made from a combination of bitter and sweet almonds, but now it’s often flavoured with apricot kernels, proving how influential the drupe’s familial connections can be.
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Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Lee Blaylock. Food preparation by Peta Gray. Creative concept by Lou Fay.
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