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Almonds are a fruit which belong to the Prunus family which includes other fruit such as plum, cherry and peach.  There are two types - sweet almonds (prunus amygdalus ‘dulcis’) which are are the ones used for culinary purposes  and bitter almonds (prunus amygdalus ‘amara’) which, because they have poisonous properties, are mainly processed and used in the making of oils or flavourings such as almond essence. One way or another, this universal nut is used in most countries.


Almonds Origin and History Almonds


Although almonds are thought to have originated in western or central Asia,  by 4000BC they had spread extensively and have been widely used for both culinary and other purposes for thousands of years.  By the late 700 AD Arab traders who by now had set up regular trade with Spain and Portugal introduced the almond tree to those countries and almonds are still a popular ingredient in both cuisines. They were introduced to Northern India in the 16th century by Persians immigrants who settled in the region and as with Portugal and Spain, almonds are now an established ingredient in some North Indian cuisines  in particular the  Mughlai style of cooking.


During the Middle Ages, almonds were an important trading commodity in Europe as their consumption in medieval cookery rocketed.  Recipes  using almond "flour" dating from this period have been found and almond "milk" was used as a  substitute for milk on religious fasting days.  In the 1700's Franciscan monks transported almond trees from Spain to California and today US almond growers supply more than 75 percent of worldwide production.


Cultivation and Processing Almonds


The almond tree is a very pretty tree and is one of the first fruit trees to blossom in Spring. Because of this, it has been regarded through the ages by many cultures as a bringer of new life and fertility. It's a relatively a small tree growing to about 30 feet high, with the fruit forming singly and in clusters on the branches.


A natural draw-back of the early flowering means that the tree needs a warm dry climate in order to produce well. It will survive in more temperate climates, such as that in the south of the UK although fruit production will be inferior.  Almond tree are not self-pollinating so at least two different varieties of trees are necessary. Many almond orchards have beehives in place to assist with the pollination.


Once the fruit set,  the hulls start to harden until they eventually begin to split around 4 months later.  When the fruit is fully mature, the hulls completely burst open exposing the shell allowing the kernel (nut) to begin drying out. Mechanical tree "shakers" are sometimes utilised to harvest the nuts although hand harvesting is also done by means of knocking the fruit from the branches with long poles. Once on the ground they are allowed to dry before being taken to a hulling facility where the nuts are removed from the outer casing (hulls).  The nuts are then either transported for sale whole or taken for further processing i.e. to be shelled, blanched, chopped or ground.

Buying, storing and preparing Almonds

For culinary purposes, Almonds can be purchased in a number of forms e.g.  whole in shell,  whole in skin,  whole blanched, flaked, slivered and ground not to mention as a flavouring (essence).  when buying them in shell a good test as to the freshness is buy shaking them. If they rattle a lot it's a sign that the nut is shrinking and is therefore aging.

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In general, it's better to buy whole nuts and slice, chop or grind them yourself.  Old almonds turn rancid so check them by cutting in half and looking for a solid white texture throughout. If it is yellowish or has a honeycomb texture it shouldn't be used.


Always store opened packets of unshelled almonds in a cool, dark place in an airtight container where they should last for three months or so.  Fresh almonds in their shell will last for about 3 months at room temperature or a little longer if kept in the refrigerator. Shelled nuts can also be frozen but try to keep them as whole as possible.


Although the brown skin is edible,  it can sometimes be a little bitter so you are advised to taste it first however, unless it's very bitter, leave it on as it adds extra flavour to the dish. However if you wish to skin them for what ever reason, this can be done by dropping them into boiling water for 2 or 3 minutes. Rinse under cold water then slip the skins off using a pinching movement.


Toasting almonds brings out the flavour. This can be done in a non-stick frying pan over a medium/high heat. Keep turning them with a spatula or wooden spoon and toast for about 2 minutes until tinged with brown. Remove immediately and allow to cool. They can also be roasted in the oven (180C, 350F, Gas mark 4) for about 15 minutes.


Cooking with Almonds



Almonds can be used in a variety of  sweet and savoury recipes and are excellent with meat, fish, poultry, vegetables and fruit. In fact, they go pretty well with most ingredients at some time or another and flaked or coarsely chopped almonds make an attractive garnish for many dishes.


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