amande (French), Mandel (German), almendra (Spanish), amettla (Catalan), amêndoa (Portuguese), mandorla (Italian), amígda (Greek), badem (Turkish), mindal (Russian), shaqed (Hebrew), lawza (Arabic), xing ren (Chinese), amondo (Japanese)
(Prunus amygdalon or P. dulcis – Family Rosaceae)
The almond is a nut borne by the beautiful almond tree, which grows to a height of twenty or thirty feet. The nut is called Queen of the Rose family because it is highly versatile and has a delicate flavour. Because the almond is so well-known and so highly esteemed, the name has been borrowed and applied to other nuts, including the Chinese almond (a close relative), the Indian almond, and the Java almond or pili nut. Almondette is a name that has been applied to the ‘calumpang nut’ borne by trees of the genus Buchanania found in the sub-continent of India and Southeast Asia. To make matters even more confusing, some botanists believe that the almond is not a true species, but rather an ancient hybrid from at least three of the many species of wild almonds found in the arid mountains of the Near East and Central Asia. The species most frequently thought to have contributed to the cultivated almond are: a small tree of Russian Turkestan (Prunis bucharia), a shrubby tree in the dry mountain slopes of Armenia and eastwards (P. fenzliana), and another large shrub found on the rocky slopes of the Tian Chan and Pamirs in Central Asia (P. ulmifolia).
Of the nearly fifty species of wild almonds, only a few have sweet kernels. The rest contain bitter substances, amygdalin and prussic acid, making them unfit for most uses, except as an extract. Almond oil is extracted from bitter almonds, but it is not the same thing as oil of bitter almonds, also known as almond essence. This is made from the residue left after the extraction of the almond oil. This is poisonous. It has to be steeped in water for half a day then distilled, which results in a highly concentrated almond flavouring.
Degrees of sweetness differ even in strains of the same species. Not only that, but both the sweet and bitter varieties can yield both sweet and bitter almonds on the same tree. With the exception of the Chinese almond, from a variety of plum, none of the other stone fruit kernels, including those of the wild species, are of any importance as nuts for human consumption.
The almond tree grows only in warm temperate climates, and has been cultivated since prehistoric times. It is the most important nut in the commercial world today. California is the main producer, followed by Spain and Italy. Almonds are also grown in most Mediterranean countries, Afghanistan, China, and Australia, with both the sweet and bitter varieties being cultivated. Sweet almonds are grown for use in confectionary items. However, bitter almonds are easier and cheaper to grow, but are only suitable for use after heat removes the toxins. Obviously, they have a different flavour from the sweet ones, but the main distinction between them is the shell. Some have hard or thick shells, while other varieties have the extra-thin papershells. Well-known varieties include the Jordan (the name has nothing to do with the country, but is a corruption of the Spanish “jardin” meaning garden, where they often grow), Valencia (another semi-hard shell Spanish type), and the Californian papershell Nonpareil and softshell Ne Plus Ultra. The numerous Italian varieties of almond are almost all hard-shelled.
Almonds are one of the few alkaline nuts, and is widely used in ayurvedic medicine to relieve phlegm and coughs and to lubricate the intestines. It is also believed that almonds inhibit the growth of cancer cells. They can also relieve some types of constipation, especially when prepared as a drink by soaking the nuts overnight, removing the peel in the morning, and putting the nuts into a blender with some water. Since almonds are low in lysine, they are an ideal food to combine with legumes in order for the meal to contain a complete protein content. They are not ideal to combine with grains as they, too, have a low lysine content.
Almond milk has been used since ancient times, especially in the Arab world and later in Europe, where it replaced milk on fast days. During the medieval period, almond milk appeared twice as often in English recipes as those of France, despite the fact that almond trees do not grow in England, but they do in France. Some have speculated that this was because it had more “snob appeal,” being an import and all!
The well-known European confection marzipan is made by using almond paste, rose water, and sugar. It is said that this recipe dates from the time of the Thirty Years’ War. The city of Lübeck was under a particularly long seige and had nothing left of its food supplies, except almonds and sugar (no mention is made if they had any rose water or if that was added later). The almonds and sugar were used to make the candylike bread, which was the population’s only sustenance by the end of that siege.
– The Chinese almond (Prunus armeniaca) is an important fruit in many countries, but it is only in northern China that it is cultivated specifically for its kernels. The tree of this particular variety grows very erect and is quite distinguishable from all other varieties of apricots. There are several varieties of apricots that produce these seeds, but the best ones are small red fruits with large, medium soft stones, and sweet kernels. The kernel is virtually indistinguishable from the common almond, but the shell is quite different, being darker and having a thickened rim along the suture line which joins the halves. The Chinese almond appears in many traditional recipes, and may be used in the same way as the true almond.
– The Indian or tropical almond (Terminalia catappa – Family Combretaceae) is unrelated to the true almond, but used in the same way, nonetheless. Originally from southern Asia, the deciduous tree has been widely planted throughout the tropical world as an ornamental shade tree. The tree bears two crops annually and thrives from sea-level to about 2,000 feet. The fruit is the size of a plum and slightly compressed on two sides. Inside is a single kernel (drupe). The flavour is that of an almond as is the edible oil pressed from it. Because of the small size of the kernel and the difficulty in cracking the spongy shell, the nut is not used much in the Western Hemisphere; but children in the West Indies love to crack them between stones to get at the kernels.