Almonds: Who Really Cares?

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve gone to far. I wonder if my process of acquiring knowledge of all things food can ever so slightly cross the line from trivial pursuit to dangerous obsession. If one can point others to the most concise resource for almond information online, who, aside from those in the almond industry, would look at me with pity and shame.

I mean think about it.. how many people in your day to day dealings can tell you that the nonpareil is the dominant almond on the American markey today? That the nonpareil is the standard from which all other almond varities are judged. The nonpareil is the benchmark for all other almonds! Does anyone really care?

(I hear a collective “No” from the daily readership)

I mean, I could tell you all that there are hundreds of varieties of almonds, much in the same way there are hundreds of varieties of apples or pears. There’s the carmel, the california and the mission (these three, along with the vaunted nonpareil make up almost all of the almonds in America). But there’s also the butte, the padre and the ruby. There’s also the wood colony, ne plus and the livingston. I can tell you this, but in truth…does anyone care?

I can tell you that almonds are graded by three primary criteria…the thickness of the shell, the smoothness of the paper, and the size of the kernal.

I can tell you that there is prussic acid naturally occuring in bitter almonds. Most California almonds are of termed ‘sweet’ rather than ‘bitter’, and thus have far less of this poison, if any at all. But because we Americans come from a paranoid stock. we have (or rather our government has) banned sales of bitter almonds, completely ignoring the fact that heat breaks down prussic acid.

The result of this is that those pesky europeans, who have far less fears of foods than we do, have no qualms of harvesting bitter almonds and, you know, actually making the almonds safe to eat. Thus they can press an oil that is more fragrant and flavorful than the bland oil pressed from sweet almonds. They also are used to make bitter-almond extract, which imparts highly concentrated almond flavor, and very sparingly (one bitter almond per
100 sweet almonds), to add nuance to marzipan. In Italy, bitter-almond paste is used to make the crisp amaretti cookies, and bitter-almond extract gives amaretto liqueur its character.

Europeans make Marzipan and amaretto; we make crappy mass produced chocolate. Leave it to American know-how to water down the taste of a nut.

So yeah, this is what I know about almonds. I’m still not sure if this knowledge is a good thing, as all it seems to do is annoy the wait staff and baristas of my local hang outs.


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