The Allure Of Almonds

Sprinkle them on salads, spread them on seafood, bake them into desserts or simply eat them from a bowl. These nuts not only taste good, they are good for you.

October 06, 2004|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Things are shaking out in the almond orchards of northern California. This isnM-Ft because growers have created a nutty new dance; nor are there tremors along the San Andreas fault. Instead, itM-Fs harvest season, which means machines shaped like giant lobster claws cozy up next to almond tree trunks, grip them tight and jiggle the ripe almonds free from their branches.

Do you say all-mond or am-mond? Each September and October, thereM-Fs a joke about this puzzlement, according to Elaine Rominger, a fourth-generation grower who prefers the latter pronunciation.

M-tWe take an all-mond,M-v she said, M-tthen shake the l out of it, and it becomes an am-mond.M-v

There are nearly 6,000 growers like Rominger who tend more than half a million acres of almond orchards in California, mostly near Sacramento. This figure has doubled in the last 20 years, which means almonds are being harvested at record levels of a billion pounds annually.

According to Susan Brauner, an industry spokeswoman, almonds are the United StatesM-F largest horticultural export, both in weight and monetary value, with more than 88 percent of the worldM-Fs supply coming from California.

As a snack or versatile cooking ingredient, almonds are featured on menus around the globe, including Baltimore restaurants such as Blue Sea Grill, Fatima's and Blue Agave.

And, they don't only taste good, but are good for you. Several studies, including one conducted recently by Loma Linda University in California, show that almond consumption is linked to lowered risk for heart disease. This may be because of the antioxidant action of almonds' plentiful vitamin E and monounsaturated fats, the same type of "good" fat found in olive oil. Almonds are also a surprisingly strong source of calcium and protein.

So, they're considered heart smart for many reasons, including that - at least throughout the Arab world - almonds are considered an aphrodisiac.

The bitter and the sweet

Almond trees have a bewitching allure. Straight and well-proportioned, they can grow to 40 feet in height and are greatly admired for their fragrant white flowers that blossom each spring.

"The bloom is very beautiful, a solid mass of white. "You can't imagine how white it is," said Dan Cummings, president of Cummings-Violich Inc., an almond orchard in Chico, Calif., 90 miles north of Sacramento.

Sheathed by a papery brown skin and then encased in a shell, almonds are a cousin to peaches, cherries and apricots. In contrast to these fruits, however, whose flesh is consumed and pit discarded, with an almond, the seed is enjoyed and its fuzzy gray-green husk is thrown away. Almonds are classified into two categories: sweet, which are eaten, and a bitter kind used to make almond oil and liqueurs such as amaretto.

In ancient times, the Romans showered newly wedded couples not with rice but with almonds because they were thought to be a fertility symbol. (This tradition continues today, as many wedding receptions serve Jordan almonds, which have pastel-colored candy coatings.) The Romans referred to them as the "Greek nut," referring to an earlier civilization thought to have discovered them.

Current thinking, though, holds that almonds first were cultivated in western Asia and popularized by merchants who munched them as they traversed the Silk Road. This probably explains how almond trees came to flourish in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, such as Spain, Italy, Greece and Israel.

Fabio Mura, chef de cuisine at the Blue Sea Grill on Water Street, fondly recalls picking almonds as a child in his native Sardinia. "We would eat them raw, or saute them with a little butter, salt and pepper. Delicious!"

"In Morocco, where I come from, almonds are expensive," said Fouad Bouberri, chef/owner of Fatima's in Canton. "If you serve someone almonds, it means you like that person."

It's believed that Franciscan monks brought almonds from Spain to California in the mid-1700s when they began building missions there. Moist, cool weather along the western coastline, however, didn't provide optimum growing conditions. Not until the 19th century, when trees were relocated into California's great Central Valley, was their success assured. The trees are planted 20 feet to 40 feet apart and a single one produces tens of thousands of nuts each season, and may continue to bear fruit for up to half a century.

Shortly after harvest each fall, male and female flower parts start to develop on the edges of a growing bud. By mid-December, pollen grains are present. A bit of chill in November and December, followed by a warmer January and February, coaxes the first almond-tree blossoms. These remain dormant until bees arrive.

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