Almonds are deciduous trees that can grow anywhere from 13 to 33 feet, with trunks that can reach a foot in diameter. Their flowers are a pale pink or white color and appear in early spring. Most people think of almond trees as nut bearing, but in many respects they more closely resemble fruit trees. Almonds are drupes, which means that they are closely related to plums and cherry trees. The “nut” is actually an edible seed inside the hull of the almond’s fruit. Regardless of how you classify them, almonds are still a tasty food enjoyed by people all over the world.
History and Domestication
Humans domesticated almonds in the Early Bronze Age. They are native to China and Central Asia, and likely gained popularity as they traveled down the Silk Road which stretched from Asia to the Mediterranean. They were much beloved by many ancient civilizations from the Egyptian pharaohs who used them as an ingredient in bread to the Phoenicians who brought almonds from Egypt to their colonies in North Africa. The nut eventually made its way to Greece and when the Romans invaded, they brought them home where they were known to give them as gifts to newlyweds as a fertility charm. Almond trees are also important symbols in both the Jewish and Christian traditions and are featured in early writings in both religions. Soon, almonds were found throughout the Mediterranean region, particularly in what is now Spain and Italy.
Almonds likely came to the New World with Spanish Franciscan Padres settling in California. While the first trees were not very successful due to being planted along the coast, later they became a fixture in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. Today, the United States is still the leading grower of almonds, but they are also cultivated in Australia, Greece, Iran, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Syria, and Turkey.
The annual pollination of almond trees in California is the largest annual managed pollination event in the world, and around one million hives (that’s half of all US hives) are trucked in to pollinate the flowers. Bees are the most successful almond pollinators, and successful pollination is crucial for a good yield. To compound the pollination problem, almond flowers are only open for a few weeks. While some self pollinating varieties are being developed, the traditionally insect pollinated trees are the most productive, making it crucial to support bee health for good harvests.
A Poisonous Truth
Almonds can either be sweet or bitter, with some trees producing both kinds of nuts. The bitterness is caused by a single recessive gene, which made the plant easy to domesticate in ancient times. Ancient farmers could plant the sweet seeds, with a high degree of confidence that sweet almonds would grow from them. Their genetic composition is also particularly important, because bitter almonds contain the poisonous chemical cyanide. Sweet almonds do not. The cyanide found in the nuts are potent enough to kill. Five to ten nuts are enough to cause a fatality in children and fifty are enough to be a lethal dose for adults. Today, bitter almonds are banned in most countries as food crops.
Almonds are used to make many kinds of special foods including Chinese almond biscuits, Italian amaretti, and Iranian chaqale bâdam. However, one of the most remarkable sweet almond based foods is found in many European countries: Marzipan.
The origin of marzipan is unclear, but most people believe that it emerged in Lübeck, Germany in the 15th century. At the time, a famine caused flour shortages, so bakers had to scrambled to find a replacement to feed their hungry customers. They arrived at combining eggs, sugar, and finely ground almonds to create the sweet confection called marzipan.
Another notable quality of marzipan is that it is relatively easy to make. To make your own sweet treat all you need to do is combine one pound almond paste, three cups powdered sugar and two large egg whites that have been lightly beaten, and you’ll end up with a thick, sweet candy like paste.
Once the basic paste has been made, experienced chefs dye and mold the shape into all kinds of colorful forms. Animals, fruits, vegetables and people are all popular shapes, and have become traditional staples to celebrate special occasions all over the world. It is eaten at weddings in the Italy, Greece, and Cyprus. In Germany and other parts of Europe, it is considered good luck to receive a marzipan pig on Christmas or New Year’s Day, and in Norway and Denmark, egg shaped marzipan is given at Easter
The Story of the Almond Snow
Today’s story comes from Portugal and is a tale of how a patient, clever prince cured his beloved of her homesickness.
Once upon a time, a Moorish prince named Ibn-Almuncim lived in the country of Al Garb. He ruled from the city of Silves, and was known as a wise and kind prince who would make his father, the king, proud.
One day, as he was meeting with the tall blonde diplomats of a faraway land to the North, Ibn-Almuncim, set eyes on the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She was tall and lithe, and her name was Gilda. Even better, she was a princess, and she seemed to be looking at him in much the same way he was looking at her. Seeing how in the love the pair were, their parents agreed to the match. When the Nordic diplomats left Silves, their princess stayed behind with her new husband.
At first, Gilda seemed to love her new home. She delighted in trying new foods, music, and clothing, but after her first winter came and went, she became sad. Nothing the prince tried would cheer her up. As more time went by, she became wan, and no longer wanted to leave her rooms. Afraid that his princess would pine away to nothing, the prince sent for all the physicians in the country, but they had no answers for him.
Finally, desperate and dispirited, the prince sought out the merchant’s quarter of the city, where travelers and traders were known to frequent. One by one, he searched each inn, until he finally found what he was looking for: Norsemen.
When he approached the table of tall burly men, they beckoned him to join them, recognizing the man who had married their kinswoman. Hesitantly the prince put his problem before them. The Norsemen looked soberly at each other for a moment, before their leader spoke in a solemn voice, “It’s the snow, lad. She’s missin’ the snows of her home.”
Sadly, the prince thanked them and left. He had an answer, but was no closer to curing his beloved. Al Garb was warm and green. It did not snow in his land. Just when it seemed that there was no hope, the clever prince noticed a tree growing from a large pot next to a fruit and nut merchant. Ibn-Almuncim smiled. He knew exactly what he would do.
The seasons changed as the prince enacted his plan. Finally, on the first perfect day of Spring, he strode into his wife’s chambers. Lovingly drying her tear soaked face on the sleeve of his robe, he gently pulled her from her bed, and led her to the window. He opened the glass pane and the princess gasped. As she looked out over the walls of the palace, she saw a blanket of white covering the hills in every direction. After seeing the tree in the market, the prince had ordered every inch of his kingdom planted in almond trees. Their white blossoms carpeted everything,transforming even the green hills of Al Garb into a winter wonderland.
The prince looked into his princess’ smiling face, and knew that everything was going to be alright.
In the Victorian Language of Flowers, a common almond means “stupidity” or “indiscretion,” while a flowering almond means “hope.” A laurel made of almond branches means “perfidy.”
The almond is also a symbol heavily used in the Jewish and Christian religions. In the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, almonds symbolize watchfulness and promise because it flowers earlier than other plants. Christian symbolism associates the almond branch with the virgin birth of Jesus.