Almonds—the Nutty Fruit. Health reasons to eat it.
FROM my vantage point high on a hill, I see a series of white islands scattered throughout the blue-green valley below. A closer look reveals that what seems from a distance to be fields of white popcorn balls are, in reality, thousands of individual trees, each full of white blooms with delicate pink centers that fill the air with their heady fragrance. These delights that thrill my senses best describe an almond orchard in full bloom during early spring.
I have enjoyed this breathtaking sight since childhood because I was raised on an almond orchard in a small California town. My family earned its livelihood from growing and harvesting these delicious fruits.
“Fruits?” you ask. “Isn’t an almond a nut?” Well, yes and no. Although commonly considered a nut, the almond is, curiously enough, a fruit. It is part of the family from which other stone-fruit trees derive their origin, namely the rose family. Stone fruits include peaches, apricots, and plums. Next time you have a peach pit in your hand, notice how closely in size and shape it resembles an almond shell. Crack both open and you will find that the kernels are similar too. However, only almonds should be eaten, since eating the kernels of fruits like peaches can make you sick.
Almonds in History
The roots of almond history extend far back to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean region. In fact, long before the time of Christ, Middle Easterners were using almonds as a regular feature of their diet, and for good reason.
A handful of plain almonds provides not only a tasty snack but a healthful one. Almonds contain important nutrients, as well as significant amounts of essential vitamins and minerals. This could explain why almonds were so highly valued as a regular feature in the Middle Easterner’s diet, and why as Islam expanded its boundaries during the Middle Ages, the cultivation of almonds followed.
Muslim plantings flourished in Spain and then later in the New World through the colonial expansion of California’s Spanish missions. Now, 200 years later, almonds are California’s largest tree crop, and the state itself is one of the world’s leading almond producers.
Use of the Smudge Pots
During the bloom period, the almond-flower buds are in danger of injury if exposed to subfreezing temperatures too long. In the past, to prevent injury to these delicate buds, smudge pots were used to provide protection against frost. These oil-burning pots were placed along the tree rows at regular intervals. Although the tiny almond buds benefited greatly from the blanket of grimy, black smoke that was produced, the local inhabitants did not!
Imagine going to bed clean and waking up in the morning with your face covered with a sooty film that penetrated your nostrils and even found its way under your fingernails! No closed windows and doors or abundance of soap and water could keep us clean during the battle of the smudge pots versus the frost.
Happily, however, things have changed. Some orchards still use smudge pots, but other methods are now used successfully, to the delight of residents within the almond-growing community.
The Clattering Almond Hail
The method of harvesting almonds has also changed over the years. Hired laborers, toting large rubber mallets, used to climb agilely into trees and hit the branches, causing the almonds to tumble in a clattering hail onto canvas sheets stretched below. The sheets were then dragged by horse or tractor to the next tree and the process repeated. When the sheets were too heavy to pull, the almonds were bagged in gunnysacks and hauled off to the huller to be cleaned.
Today, in contrast, machines are used to shake the trees, gather up the almonds, and even separate the debris of dirt and hulls from the fruit. My father was one of the earliest designers of a machine that utilized a blast of air to separate much of the debris from the almond fruit itself.
Later, the almonds literally flow through the processing plant automatically. There they are cracked, cleaned, graded by size, sorted by an electric eye, and given a final inspection.
What next happens to some almonds is most exciting and appetizing. Imagine, a plain almond suddenly becoming flavored with hickory smoke, garlic or onion, or sugarcoated, salted, roasted, or creamed into almond butter—to name just a few of the many tasty changes designed to tantalize our taste buds. And let’s not forget all the delicious candy bars, bakery goods, and ice creams flavored with whole or crushed almonds!
Growing up around almond orchards proved extremely pleasant and memorable for me. You might think that I would come to know all there is to know about that nutty fruit. Not quite.