Though Prunus amygdalus is, as its name hints, a close relative of plums, as well as peaches, you’ll never eat this tree’s fruit. For this drupe (the technical name for fruit with stones, such as plums and cherries), life is the pits. Literally. The fruit of this native of southwestern Asia becomes leathery as it matures, and splits open when ripe, exposing the world’s most popular nut, the almond.
Actually, there are two types of almond—sweet and bitter. The bitter almond is used primarily for flavoring, but it is the sweet almond that we eat. The sweet almond, which is almost as famous for its beautiful white flowers as for its nuts, closely resembles the related peach.
The almond probably started in Asia Minor, but it was on the move so early that it is hard to be precise about where its roots truly lie. It is believed that almonds, along with dates, were among the earliest cultivated foods. Almonds have been found on the island of Crete, at the Neolithic level under the palace of Knossos and in Bronze Age storerooms at Hagia Triada. The almond was written of by the Babylonians, Anatolians (who used it largely for oil), and Hittites, and, along with the pistachio, is one of only two nuts mentioned in the Bible.
The Greeks were the first to grow almonds in Europe. The Greek scholar, Theophrastus, mentions in his history of plants, written about 300 BC, that almond trees were the only trees in Greece that produced blossoms before leaves. The Romans, who referred to almonds as “the Greek nut,” brought almonds to Italy around 200 BC The Romans used almonds primarily in the form of sweets, but also used ground almonds to thicken and flavor sauces. Actually, ground almonds have never lost their popularity as a thickener.
As the Mongols, particularly under the leadership of Genghis Khan, swept across Asia, almonds went with them. However, almonds did not move west only. When the Mughals established their empire in India during the 1500s, among the numerous delicacies they introduced, and which were absorbed into Indian cuisine, was the use of almonds and almond milk.
Arabs and Moors made extensive use of almonds in their cuisine. When the Moors conquered Spain in 711 AD, they brought almonds with them, along with the techniques of growing and irrigating the trees that produced the nuts. Since the Moors were not driven out of Spain until 1492, almonds were well established in the local cuisine and landscape by the time they left.
Though Spain became Europe’s center of almond growing, the nut was popular throughout the continent. Charlemagne ordered that almonds be grown in his domains. The first French cookbooks, written about 1300, discuss the uses of almond milk, and an English cookbook of 1390 describes a gravy thickened with ground almonds. (It is likely that England developed its taste for almonds when the Romans ruled. However, England’s almonds have probably always been imported, for though it is possible to grow almonds as ornamental trees in England’s south, the cooler climate would make maturity and fruit-bearing rarities.)
From Spain, almonds traveled with explorers to the New World. In the 1700s, when Franciscan Padres from Mexico were establishing the missions that still grace many towns in California, they brought almonds along for their gardens. The almonds flourished. Today, California is the top producer of almonds in the world, growing 99.9 percent of the American crop, and more than 80 percent of all the almonds in the world. Spain, Italy, the rest of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Australia account for the balance.
California’s output averages between 500 and 800 million pounds of almonds a year. This is more than the U.S. needs, but the worldwide demand is high, and California’s almonds are exported to more than 90 countries, with Japan and Germany topping the customer list. But while Americans grow the most almonds, the most interesting almond recipes come to us from the countries where the nuts have the longest history, primarily the Mediterranean countries and Near East.