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Almonds

 

 

Almonds (in the shell and out of it)

The almond, Prunus dulcis (formerly classified as Prunus amygdalus, or Amygdalus communis) is a small deciduous tree belonging to the Subfamily Prunoideae of the Family Rosaceae. An almond is also the fruit of this tree. It is classified with the peach in the Subgenus Amygdalus within Prunus, distinguished from the other subgenera by the corrugated seed shell. The fruit lacks the sweet fleshy outer covering of other members of Prunus (such as the plum and cherry), this being replaced by a leathery coat containing the edible kernel which is often called a "nut" in common and culinary usage, but which is a drupe and not a nut in botanical parlance.

The tree is probably a native of southwest Asia and north Africa, but has been so extensively cultivated for so long over the warm temperate regions of the Old World that its original natural distribution is obscure. It can ripen fruit as far north as the British Isles. It is a tree of moderate size; the leaves are lanceolate, and serrated at the edges; and it flowers early in spring. The fruit is a drupe, having a downy outer coat, called the epicarp, which encloses the reticulated hard stony shell, or "endocarp". The seed is the kernel which is contained within these coverings.

Sweet and bitter almond

There are two forms of the plant, one (often with white flowers) producing sweet almonds, and the other (often with pink flowers) producing bitter almonds. The kernel of the former contains a fixed oil and emulsion. As late as the early 20th century it was used internally in medicine, with the stipulation that it must not be adulterated with the bitter almond; it remains fairly popular in alternative medicine, particularly as a carrier oil in aromatherapy, but has fallen out of prescription among doctors.

Blanched almonds
Blanched almonds

The bitter almond is rather broader and shorter than the sweet almond, and contains about 50% of the fixed oil which also occurs in sweet almonds. It also contains a ferment emulsion which, in the presence of water, acts on a soluble glucoside, amygdalin, yielding glucose, cyanide and the essential oil of bitter almonds or benzaldehyde. Bitter almonds may yield from 6 to 8% of prussic acid (also known as hydrogen cyanide). Extract of bitter almond was once used medicinally but even in small doses is severe and in larger doses can be deadly; the prussic acid must be removed before consumption.

Almond oil

"Oleum Amygdalae", the fixed oil, is prepared from either variety of almond and is a glyceryl oleate, with slight odour and a nutty taste. It is almost insoluble in alcohol but readily soluble in chloroform or ether. It may be used as a pleasant substitute for olive oil. The sweet almond itself contains practically no starch and may therefore be made into flour for cakes and biscuits for patients suffering from diabetes mellitus or any other form of glycosuria. Almond extract is also a popular substitute for vanilla extract among people with diabetes. Sweet almonds are used in marzipan, nougat, and macaroons, as well as other desserts. Almonds contain 35% by weight USRDA Vitamin E and are high in monounsaturated fat, the "good" fat responsible for lowering LDL cholesterol.

Production

California in the western US has become the single largest producer of almonds since their introduction to the state in the mid 1700s; almonds now serve as California's seventh largest food export. Spain is the next largest producer of almonds after California, producing numerous commercial varieties of sweet almond, most notably the Jordan almond (imported from Malaga) and the Valencia almond.

Pollination

The pollination of California's almonds is the largest annual managed pollination event in the world, with close to one million hives (nearly half of all beehives in the USA) being trucked in February to the almond groves. Much of the pollination is managed by pollination brokers, who contract with migratory beekeepers from at least 38 states for the event.

Cultural aspects

The almond is highly revered in some cultures. Among the Hebrews, it was a symbol of watchfulness and promise due to its early flowering, while the Chinese consider it a symbol of enduring sadness and female beauty. Christian symbolism often uses almond branches as a symbol of the Virgin Birth of Jesus; paintings often include almonds encircling the baby Jesus and as a symbol of Mary. In the Bible, Aaron is chosen among the other tribes of Israel by a rod that brought forth almond flowers. In a similar legend, Pope Urban once declared that a man named Tannhauser would not receive forgiveness until his wooden staff bloomed again. This occurred after three days, but Tannhauser could not be found. The nut of the tree has also been used a preventative for alcohol intoxication. Folklore also claims that almonds are poisonous for foxes. The tree grows in Syria and Israel; and is referred to in the Bible under the name of "Shaked", meaning "hasten". The word "Luz", which occurs in Genesis 30:37, and which some translations have as "hazel", is supposed to be another name for the almond. In Palestine the tree flowers in January. The application of "Shaked" or "hasten" to the almond is similar to the use of the name "May" for the hawthorn, which usually flowers in that month in Britain. The rod of Aaron, mentioned in Numbers 17, was taken from an almond tree; and the Jews still carry rods of almond blossom to the synagogues on great festival days. The fruit of the almond supplied a model for certain kinds of ornamental carved work (Exodus 25:33-34; 37:19-20).

Etymology

The word 'almond' comes from the Old French almande or alemande, late Latin amandola, derived through a form amingdola from the Greek amugdale, an almond; the al- for a- may be due to a confusion with the Arabic article al, the word having first dropped the a- as in the Italian form mandorla; the British pronunciation ar-mond and the modern French amande show the true form of the word.

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