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Scientific name – Prunus dulcis
Closely related to peaches and apricots, almonds belong to the peach family and include other well-known edibles as cherries, plums and the wild sloe. The almond is native to Central Asia but soon spread west to the Mediterranean. In its ancestral form, the tree protects its seeds from being eaten by loading it with bitter and ‘hot’ tasting chemicals which are toxic. Over time, seeds of the least bitter trees were chosen and planted and eventually, over many centuries the non-toxic ‘sweet’ almond that we know today arose.
Almonds are a popular food and are eaten raw, roasted, salted, sprouted, flaked, or ground into soft moist granules and widely used as an ingredient of confectionery. They can also be blended with water to form almond milk, a popular refreshing beverage in summer, or made into almond butter. Ground almonds together with sugar and egg whites is used to make marzipan, an essential item for the icing on wedding cakes as well as numerous types of sweets and sweetmeats like the French massepains. Almond meal adds richness to cakes, tarts, pastries, soups, sauces and even curries. The tender kernels of young almonds, picked before they are mature are dipped in sea salt and eaten as a snack and is a traditional delicacy in the Middle east.
For the best flavour, buy the almonds already shelled and blanch them yourself. To do this cover with boiling water, leave for a few minutes then drain and the skins will peel off easily.
They are a highly valued part of the diet of all Mediterranean people, Spanish, Slavic, Turkish, Algerian, Greek, Arab, or Albanian. Almond extract and almond oil however are not made from the common edible variety but from another, more bitter species.
Ancient pagans thought almonds symbolised virginity and were used also as fertility charms and marriage blessings.