Dear Readers, the almond has always seemed to me to be the most exotic of nuts. Coming originally from Iran, it is a mainstay of pastries right across the Middle East and the Mediterranean region – I well remember the delicious sweetmeats that I ate in Morocco, including the Kaab El Ghazal (gazelle horns) of Marrakech, with their orange-water scented almond paste. Almond flavouring pops up everywhere, of course, from the marzipan that we use to cover our Christmas cakes to the amaretto liqueur of Italy, and those tasty little amaretti biscuits. When we were children and were lucky enough to get a tin box of the amaretti wrapped in paper, we’d roll the paper into a tube, set fire to the top, and clap our hands as the fiery cylinder flew up into the air, threatening to turn the curtains into an exciting conflagration. Well, entertainment was hard to come by in the East End in those days – remind me to tell you of the time my Uncle Ken blew up the living room window sill with his chemistry set.
Almonds are most closely related to peaches – the corrugations on the shell are an indication of their genetic relationship.
And if anyone ever watches ‘Midsomer Murders’ or ‘Murder She Wrote’, you will recall the moment when the detective muses on ‘the smell of bitter almonds’ coming from an otherwise innocent glass of wine or half-quaffed cup of bedtime cocoa.
‘Cyanide!’ says the discerning viewer, and indeed, there are certain almond trees which produce not sweet but bitter almonds. Eating 50 bitter almonds is enough to kill an adult, but cyanide extracted from the kernels is much more potent. The poison is present to a certain extent in the kernels of apricots and cherries too, but we don’t normally eat these: the almond ‘nut’ is actually the equivalent part of the almond ‘fruit’. A tiny proportion of bitter almonds are occasionally imported with sweet almonds: the symptoms of cyanide poisoning include vertigo, so be careful if the world starts spinning after a handful of almonds. It is perfectly normal for the world to start spinning after several glasses of amaretto liqueur, however.
These days, nearly 50% of world almond production comes from California, and herein lays a problem. Almond trees need a lot of water – almost 1.1 gallons to produce a single almond. California has been suffering from drought, and in the meantime the demand for almonds has gone up because of the trend towards drinking almond ‘milk’. I note that another area that produces a significant amount of almonds is the Murray-Darling basin in Australia, another area hit by severe drought. Other areas producing a lot of almonds are Morocco, Spain and Iran.
The problem of the sustainability of Californian almonds is exacerbated by the way that they are pollinated. Nearly half of all the beehives in the USA (over 1.4 million hives) are trucked to the almond groves in February (which is several months earlier than most bees would naturally be active). This enormous concentration of bees in one smallish area leads to the risk of infection and parasitism, particularly by the varroa mite. One beekeeper described it as ‘sending my bees to war’ every year, and expected to lose up to 25% of his hives. Even if biocides are not used in the almond groves themselves, the bees come into contact with the chemicals via the heavily sprayed grape and cotton crops in the area. Furthermore, the honeybees outcompete the many other local pollinators, leading to a decrease in biodiversity.
Almond growers are trying to develop self-pollinating varieties, which would do away with the requirement for bees, but currently the harvest from these trees is not as high as from the insect-pollinated cultivars.
To read more about this, have a look at this article.
The almond has had symbolic importance for both Christians and Jewish people, partly because it was the first tree to flower each year. The menorah that stood in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was said to be based on the shape of almond blossom:
“Three cups, shaped like almond blossoms, were on one branch, with a knob and a flower; and three cups, shaped like almond blossoms, were on the other…on the candlestick itself were four cups, shaped like almond blossoms, with its knobs and flowers”.
In Christianity, the almond shape of some icons and images of the Madonna and Child is known as a mandorla, and was said by Saint Hildegarde of Bingen to represent the cosmos.
The shape of the almond seems to have an innate appeal to humans – a quick search turned up lots of references to the attractiveness of the ‘almond-shaped eye’, and fingernails that have that characteristic oval shape seem to be particularly desirable. I was briefly side-lined by lots of information about a Japanese race horse called Almond Eye, and very handsome she looks too, though not remotely like a nut.
And finally, a poem. I rather liked this unusual offering by Robert William Service, a British-Canadian poet who was known as ‘the Bard of the Yukon’ (1874 – 1958). He was extraordinarily prolific, and wanted specifically to write poems for ‘ordinary folk’ rather than academics and intellectuals. See what you think.
In Wall Street once a potent power, And now a multi-millionaire Alone within a shady bower In clothes his valet would not wear, He watches bird wings bright the air. The man who mighty mergers planned, And oil and coal kinglike controlled, With field-glasses in failing hand Spies downy nestlings five days old, With joy he could not buy for gold. Aye, even childlike is his glee; But how he crisps with hate and dread And shakes a clawlike fist to see A kestrel hover overhead: Though he would never shoot it dead. Although his cook afar doth forage For food to woo his appetite, The old man lives on milk and porridge And now it is his last delight At eve if one lone linnet lingers To pick crushed almonds from his fingers.
Photo One by By Jonathan Cardy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6408498
Photo Two by By Unknown engraver 1200/1300 – http://alittlebitofstone.com/2011/09/18/bit-of-medieval-stone-found-in-surrey-field/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85583018
Photo Three by By Ogiyoshisan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73601916