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Why almonds are amongst the world's trendiest foods

Almond Facts

They are not Indian, they are not even nuts and they symbolise bee-lust

By Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times

Here are some things you may not know about almonds. I certainly did not know many of them till I sat down to research this piece.

One: Almonds are now among the world’s trendiest foods. According to health food faddists (and a few doctors) they are good for your heart, they help in weight reduction and they fill you with energy.

You may or may not believe all this (and I am vaguely sceptical), but there’s no denying that almonds have benefited from the two great food scares of our times. Because so many people are giving up gluten (and therefore, most wheat products), desserts and sweets from almond flour have rocketed in popularity, chief among them the macaroon (or macaron, if you want to get all Frenchy). And because lactose intolerance has became so fashionable, almond milk has become the trendy alternative.

Two: Do not ever say that almonds are your favourite nut. Why? Well, because they may or may not be your favourite, but they aren’t nuts at all. They are the seeds of a fruit.

Three: Of course, almonds are a vegetarian food. And all the health food stores which describe them as vegan are not wrong. But you can’t get an almond until an insect – in this case, a bee – has sex with a flower.

Yup. I am not kidding. The almond tree will not produce a fruit until a bee comes and pollinates (lovely euphemism) it. And if there are no bees of the chosen kind to be found, you won’t get any almonds.

The textbooks will tell you what kind of climate and soil (‘terroir’) are required for almond growing, but they will gloss over the carnal requirement. And yet, the main reason why almonds only grow in certain parts of the world is not because the terroir is so hard to find, it is because of this simple equation: no bee = no almond.

And four: Almonds are not Indian. They never were and they probably never will be. Attempts to grow the almond in most of the Indian peninsula have usually failed. We depend on Kashmir for our limited domestic supply of almonds. There is a kind of almond in Himachal but it is not the badam that we recognise.

So, even though almonds seem to be part of the Indian tradition, they have always been an imported food. And they never became popular in our country till the Middle Ages or the medieval era.

Much of this stuff astonished me when I came across it. Like most Indians I have grown up with the idea that the almond is as Indian as the mango. Otherwise why would we have badam barfi, badam halwa, badam kheer, badami garnish on pulaos and other dishes, or even Roghan Badam oil (‘relieves tension, strengthens brain power’ etc.)?

But the almond is actually a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean ingredient. It is mentioned in the Bible and the Romans knew it well, believing that, like all good things in that era, it came from ancient Greece. It turns up throughout history in the Western parts of the Mediterranean region, especially Spain, Italy and Southern France.

The French were probably the first to recognise its potential, making it a staple of their dessert cooking. Marzipan is made from ground almonds. Macarons are made from almond flour. And almond milk was used in early versions of such desserts as blancmange. The Spanish took this tradition forward and now have an extensive range of almond biscuits and cakes.

What’s intriguing is how completely we failed to cultivate the almond in India. However, India never wanted for almonds because supplies were easy to obtain from Afghanistan, where almonds were plentiful. The legend of the Kabuliwallah who came from Afghanistan to sell products to the Indian mainland is based in fact. And the Kabuliwallahs usually brought almonds with them. But because they came from such a long way away, almonds always had a premium image (and price) in India.

Of late, however, Afghanistan is more famous for the Taliban than for the Kabuliwallahs, so imports from there have dwindled. But no matter, a new supplier has entered the global market and more or less taken it over.

There have been almonds in California from the middle of the 18th century when they first planted Spanish almond trees. But it is only over the last few decades that production picked up. Americans were the first customers. The US now consumes 10 times as many almonds as it did in 1965. Then, the California industry set its sights on the global market, which it conquered with ease. California now controls around 85 per cent of the world’s sale of almonds.

The secret of the almond boom in California is the bee. Almond production all over the world is restricted by the number of bees required to pollinate the trees. For every acre of an almond orchard, you need two whole hives of bees. Because these are staggering odds, and because most producers elsewhere in the world depend on nature and wild bees to do their dirty work for them, almond harvests are rarely massive.

In California, they have got around that hurdle by importing bees. So vast is the acreage devoted to almond trees that California needs around 1.7 million hives if the trees are to produce almonds. No one state has that many bees. So during February each year when the mating season is on and the almond blossom is in full bloom, 80 billion (you read that right, 80 billion!) bees are let loose in the orchards. The vast majority (85 per cent or more) of those bees are driven in from outside the state for that February orgy of pollination.

The Indian market is now being taken over by California almonds, though you can still buy other varieties. The Mamra almonds from Afghanistan (they also grow in Iran and the Middle East but their market share is now down to four per cent of world sales) are still available and are preferred by purists because they are natural and organic. (All California almonds are treated with chemicals or heat, no matter what it says on the packet.) But Mamras are often the most expensive almonds in the market. Gurbandi almonds, also from Afghanistan (and Kashmir) are smaller than Mamra and often tend to be bitter.

Which almond you like is largely a matter of personal preference but be careful when you buy them. If you soak California almonds overnight in water, you will find that the water changes colour by the morning. I am told that this is because of our customs duty structure, believe it or not!

If wholesalers import the almonds after they have been machine-extracted from their shells, they pay a high rate of duty. But if they import them whole and then do the extracting themselves, they pay a lower duty. So some Indian suppliers who do not have Californian machinery hire labour to do the extracting. This is an imperfect process and the outside of the almond is often scarred or damaged.

So, incredibly enough, a few suppliers hire people to sit with paint brushes and touch up the almonds to make them look good again. It’s the ‘paint’ (harmless, by the way) that comes off when you soak the almonds.

One way of getting the goodness of almonds without recourse to paint is to drink almond milk. Though this is an ancient product, it has found favour again as a health drink. Drupe, an artisanal Indian manufacturer, makes my favourite brand of almond milk. Meeta Madhok, who owns the company, sells it as a perfect pre-workout drink and argues that you should not buy it from tetra paks or other kinds of packaging if you want a chemical and preservative-free product.

Drupe comes in little bottles and because I am not the kind of guy who has much need for a pre-workout drink, I use the Drupe almond milk in the old-fashioned way – as a substitute for cow’s milk. You can use it in place of milk in tea and coffee without really noticing. And you can use it in such desserts as kheer or even bread pudding, and you’ll find that the slight almond taste adds another layer of flavour.

Drupe also makes almond butter which, I guess, you can slather on toast though personally, I am not wild about gluten. But the butter does work as an instant energy snack. Take one spoonful and you won’t need to eat anything else. (I am guessing that this is because almonds are rich in unsaturated fat.)

Which takes us back to where we started: almonds as the world’s trendiest food, recommended for all kinds of health reasons. I guess that’s true. But speaking for myself, I like them for the taste alone. How can you not love something that is the product of so much wild passion from billions of bees?  

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