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The History of the Almond

The fascinating story of this health-giving nut and its journey through time, space and culinary cultures

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Part of the plum family, the almond tree (Prunus dulcis; Prunus amygdalus) is native to North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Levant. Archaeologists find wild almonds in dig sites that date to 8000 BCE, particularly in the region of Greece. Throughout the trade route between the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, caravans carried almonds along with stories, myths, and legends of the tree.

The English word almond has an interesting history, reflecting the nut’s wide distribution. The original pre-Greek word amygdala (which is preserved in the medical term for an almond-shaped structure in the brain) is of unknown origin; possibly Phrygian. Amygdala, being hard to pronounce, soon became amendla or amandula, which in Italy became mandorla. The French lost the l, resulting in amande, while the Spanish, accustomed to the Arabic prefix al-, added one, making almendra. Our English version is a combination of the Spanish and French words.

The Romans referred to almonds as “Greek nuts.” Almond trees are called, “the wakeful tree,” because they awaken from the sleep of winter before any other tree – blossoming in January, and bearing their fruit in March. Of all the sleeping trees, the almond tree bears the first fruit. As a result, almonds have a rich mythology throughout their growing area, all linked to the early flowering of the almond tree as the first sign of spring. The most ancient myths come from Phrygia, a legendary kingdom which became absorbed into the Persian empire in 695 BCE. These myths pull no punches; they link the almond with the god Attis, whose worship followed themes of self-mutilation, death, and resurrection. He represents the fruits of the earth, which die in winter only to rise again in the spring. In some versions, Attis was born directly out of the almond. His priests were eunuchs, and origin myths relate to Attis and castration. A prettier, later myth from Greece tells of the beautiful princess Phyllis, who was left waiting at the altar on her wedding day by Demophon. Phyllis waited for years for him to return, till in sympathy, the gods transformed her into an almond tree. When Demophon returned to find Phyllis as a leafless, flowerless tree, he threw his arms around it and it burst into bloom, a symbol of hope. The ancient Greeks additionally used almonds for interpreting dreams. To see sweet almonds in your night visions meant upcoming travel filled with prosperity. There was still a relationship, until recently, between almonds and travelling traditions: eating almonds was believed to presage a journey; whether the outcome was good or bad depended on whether the almond was sweet or bitter. The tree grows freely in Syria and Palestine and Pliny mentions the Almond among Egyptian fruit-trees: it is mentioned in Scripture as one of the best fruit trees of the land of Canaan, and there are many other biblical references to it. The Hebrew name, shakad, signifies ‘hasty awakening,’ or ‘to watch for,’ hence ‘to make haste,’ a fitting name for a tree whose beautiful flowers appear in Palestine in January. The rod of Aaron was an Almond branch, and behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted, and brought forth buds, and blossomed, and yielded almonds and the Jews still carry rods of Almond blossom to the synagogues on great festivals. The symbolism of the vigour of the almond is spelled out in Hebrew texts: From the time it sprouts to the time it ripens is [only] 21 days.

This sudden blossoming of an almond wand also occurs in the Germanic story of the knight Tannhauser. Almonds in uneven numbers of three, five, or seven are given as tokens of good fortune and happiness for christenings, weddings and religious ordination ceremonies. A combination of shelled almonds and raisins are good luck symbols for Jews.

In Scandinavian countries, Christmas dinner includes a rice pudding, called julgrot, which has an almond in it. According to tradition, whoever gets the almond will have good luck throughout the new year. In Germany the bride and groom were presented with five almonds bundled together as a wish for long life, happiness, prosperity, well-being and fertility, while in Czechoslovakia almond sprigs were distributed among the guests. Honeyed almonds feature heavily in Greek wedding traditions, representing the hope that married life brings more joy than sorrow. During the Middle Ages, Almonds became an important article of commerce in Central Europe. Their consumption in medieval cookery was enormous. A century later, Culpeper writes of almond butter: ‘This kind of butter is made of Almonds with sugar and rose-water, which being eaten with violets is very wholesome and commodious for students, for it rejoiceth the heart and comforteth the brain, and qualifieth the heat of the liver.’ Their oil (almonds yield nearly half their weight in a bland fixed oil) was also much used for medicinal purposes, for “allaying acrid juices”, softening tissues and relieving pain and the tickle of a cough. The herbalist Gerard writes: ‘The oil newly pressed out of Sweet Almonds is a mitigator of pain and all manner of aches, therefore it is good in pleurisy and colic. The oil of Almonds makes smooth the hands and face of delicate persons, and cleanseth the skin from all spots and pimples.’

Fresh Sweet Almonds possess demulcent and nutrient properties according to traditional herbalism. Blanched, pounded and beaten into an emulsion with barley-water, they were considered of great use in stone, gravel and other disorders of the kidneys, bladder and biliary ducts, and eating them was said to relieve heartburn.. Almond Milk was prescribed as a cooling, pleasant drink for hydration in acute or inflammatory diseases, and as a substitute for animal milk: sometimes it was mixed with gum arabic to make the emulsion more stable and to emphasise its cooling nature. Almonds are high in the same type of health-promoting fats as are found in olive oil, and which have been associated with reduced risk of heart disease. Five large human epidemiological studies all found that nut consumption is linked to a lower risk for heart disease. Those who consume nuts five times a week have about a 50 percent reduction in risk of heart attack. Almonds added to the diet have a favourable effect on blood cholesterol levels, according to a clinical study (cholesterol would be one of the interpretations of the Chinese concept of “phlegm”). Almonds appear to not only decrease after-meal rises in blood sugar, but also provide antioxidants to mop up the smaller amounts of free radicals that still result. Further research shows that eating almonds along with a high glycaemic index food significantly lowers the glycaemic index of the meal and lessens the rise in blood sugar after eating. The more almonds consumed, the lower the meal’s GI and the less the rise in subjects’ blood sugar after eating. Almonds contain riboflavin and L-carnitine, nutrients that boost brain activity and may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. (According to Ayurveda, almonds help increase high intellectual level and longevity.) Almonds are the only nut and one of the few proteins that are alkaline forming. When mainly acid-forming foods are consumed you risk osteoporosis, poor immune function, low energy and weight gain. Those who ate nuts at least two times per week were 31 percent less likely to gain weight than were those who never or seldom ate them, according to one large study.

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