Tasty and versatile, almonds are popular in many cuisines around the world and Italy makes no exception: they're the most important ingredient in many Italian recipes, such as for example almond paste and many kinds of soft or dry biscuits like amaretti, taralli sugna e pepe or cantucci.
In this article we will illustrate the main characteristics of almonds and learn a few more secrets about these delicious fruits rich in nutrients.
What are almonds?
Almonds are nuts. Almonds belong to the large family of nuts. They are the fruits produced by the tree Prunus Amygdalus, that is native to Central Asia and is now widespread in America, Europe and Asia. Almonds are available in shell, shelled or peeled.
Botanical aspects of almonds
The almond is the fruit of a long-lived tree, the Prunus Amygdalus, a member of the Rosaceae family, which reaches heights of up to ten metres with white or slightly pinkish five-petalled flowers. In antiquity the plant first spread to Greece and later to Italy, France and Spain.
In Greek mythology, the almond tree was attributed the meaning of hope.
The Romans knew the almond tree as the 'Greek nut' and it was already mentioned by Virgil and Horace in their manuscripts.
In North America the almond tree was introduced in the 16th century, while in Chile the plant arrived in the second half of the 17th century.
In Italy today, the cultivation of Italian almonds is widespread mainly in the southern regions and in particular in Apulia and Sicily, although some cultivation is also present in other regions such as Sardinia, Abruzzo, Calabria, Basilicata and Campania.
The seeds of the almond tree have always been considered divine because they are the protectors of truth. In fact, their strong, hard shell guards the seed-truth, which can only be known if the peel is broken.
The fruit has two layers:
- A fleshy outer shell, called the hull, which is green in colour and generally covered in hairs, but in some cases can also be glabrous.
- A rather thick woody shell consisting of two layers: the outer one is rich in stripes and pores, the inner one is thinner, more compact and smoother and contains the seed or almond.
The almond is a fruit that varies in colour from brown to ochre and is covered by an outer skin called the perisperm, which can be smooth or wrinkled.
A division is often made between sweet almonds, which are suitable for food consumption and are better known and also used in cosmetics, and bitter almonds, which are not suitable for human consumption because they contain amygdalin, a toxic substance.
It can happen that a packet of sweet almonds contains some bitter ones, but why does this happen?
The reason is that bitter almonds grow in small quantities directly on the plants that also produce sweet almonds, which means that the same almond plant produces both sweet almonds and some bitter almonds. This phenomenon occurs because in order to obtain more resistant and productive plants, almond trees are grafted onto older plants, the so-called wild or bitter almond. It can happen that the original plant manages to produce some fruit which, being morphologically indistinguishable from other almonds, is harvested together with the sweet almonds and then ends up on the market.
Although bitter almonds are considered toxic to humans if ingested, there is no cause for concern: an adult can become intoxicated by amygdalin after consuming 50-60 pieces, which is a very high amount.
Almond husks and shells are considered waste by-products which, when reduced to meal, can be used in cattle feed. The woody shells are also used as a raw material for biomass heating pellets and are excellent substitutes for sawdust pellets.
Production and processing of almonds
The productivity of the almond tree increases with age until it reaches its maximum at around 18 years of age: 75-90 quintals of almonds with hull and shell per year. Almonds can be harvested at three times of the year:
- Spring: for consumption of the whole fresh fruit. Harvesting takes place before the shell becomes lignified.
- Early summer: for consumption of the fresh seed after shucking and shelling, when the seeds have reached a solid state.
- Mid-summer: for consumption as a whole or processed dry seed after cutting and shelling. In this case the fruit has reached maturity on the tree.
For the first two uses, the harvesting method is done manually by 'bacchiatura', which consists of encouraging the fruit to fall from the branches by beating the trees with wooden poles; for consumption of the dry seeds, however, the harvesting is mainly done mechanically. The largest consumption is undoubtedly that of the dry seed, which accounts for about 92% of world almond production.
Mediterranean and Asian almond cultivation is mainly based on small, family-run almond orchards, which makes it difficult to sustain the costs of mechanisation and thus lower the cost of the product, unlike Californian almond cultivation where mechanisation has largely replaced labour, allowing prices to fall.
Once the almonds are small and dry, they are processed in a variety of ways depending on the product to be obtained: in-shell, shelled, peeled, sliced, in sticks and in grains.
Today, the world's largest producer of almonds is California, followed by Spain and Italy. While there is no size for in-shell almonds, but they are classified according to specific categories, shelled almonds are classified by identifying the size and analysing the defects (scratched fruit, broken fruit, foreign bodies, damage, shrivelling, etc.).
There are many varieties of almonds, each with its own characteristics, and each producing country has its own 'flagship' variety:
Types of almonds
- In California, the most cultivated variety is Non Pareil, which alone accounts for 50% of American production.
- In Spain, the world's second largest producer after the USA, the most widely cultivated varieties are Largueta, used mainly in the production of sugared almonds, and Valencia.
- In Italy, the most cultivated variety of almond is the Tuono variety, originally from Puglia.
Almond nutritional values
Almonds are an excellent source of vegetable protein, second only to peanuts; in fact, 100g of almonds provide around 22g of protein! In addition, they are rich in iron, which contributes to several functions in the body, including the formation of red blood cells and, consequently, to the normal transport of oxygen in the blood. Thanks to this action on oxygen transport, iron also contributes, along with magnesium, in which almonds are rich, to reducing tiredness and fatigue. In addition, almonds are also very rich in copper and zinc, two minerals which together contribute to the maintenance and pigmentation of healthy hair, skin and nails. Sweet almond oil, thanks to its omega-3 content, is also useful in treating certain skin problems, such as dermatitis, and has emollient and anti-inflammatory properties.
The main benefit of almonds is that they provide good-quality fats and vitamin E. Almonds are high in fats: indeed, 80% of the calories found in almonds come from this nutrient. Most of these fats are monounsaturated, i.e. the so-called 'good' fats.
Almonds are packed with nutrients: among nuts, they're the the best source of fibre (about 12%, that helps improving bowel function) and vitamin E.
The size of shelled almonds is determined by the diameter of fruits. The most common classification is:
- 34/36 transversal diameter: 12-14 mm
- 37/38 transversal diameter: 15-17 mm
The maximum diameter of the equatorial section of almond kernels is used as a reference to determine sizing and screening, that are carried out by means of round-holed or elongated-holed screens. Other sizing and screening systems can be used, such as those determined by the number of almond kernels per 100 g or per ounce (28.3495 g).
What are almonds used for
Almonds can be eaten raw as a snack or added to both savoury and sweet recipes. According to anyone’s needs, there are many ways to use almonds in different moments of the day:
- Mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack: almonds can be eaten alone as a snack or in addition to fresh fruit or different types of nuts. They can be eaten raw or slightly pan-roasted, with a sprinkle of salt and spices.
- Cooking ingredient: almonds are very versatile and can be added to many recipes. They’re the perfect ingredient in doughs used for pastries, tarts and bread and they’re also amazing for making sauces and dressings.
- Food decorating: chopped or sliced almonds can add a creative touch to salads, pasta or vegetable stews. They are also used to decorate cakes and desserts or to embellish a cheese and fruit platter.
- Basic ingredient for vegetable drinks: almonds are perfect for making almond-based drinks that are used in vegetable milk shakes, smoothies and more.
- Making a homemade almond cream: this one is ideal spread on bread and pancakes or eaten just the way it is.
Where can you buy almonds online?
Here is our selection of almonds:
- Shelled Giant Almonds
- Peeled Giant Almonds
- Organic Peeled Almonds
- Italian Organic Shelled Almonds
- Almond Flour
- Chopped Almonds
- Shelled Almond Slices
- Organic Italian White Almond Cream
- Roasted Shelled Organic Almond Cream
Francesca Buccella – I macro e micronutrienti nella frutta secca, disidratata, nei semi oleosi e nei prodotti macinati – Nuts for Life Edizioni