There’s something about an almond

There’s something about an almond
Almonds, whole, ground and flaked, and marzipan. (Photo: Louis Pieterse, Kudu Studio)

Heady stuff, almonds. They can sweeten your life or kill you. They’re a symbol of watchfulness and promise. Sweet. Bitter. And potentially deadly.

Drupe. Amandel. Mandoria. We’re talking about the almond, whether or not you pronounce the ‘l’ – awl-mond in American, aahmond in Britain. Almande, in old French, from the Latin Amandula, in turn from the Ancient Greek Amygdala, the almond-shaped part of the brain. Mandel (hence the Afrikaans amandel) or knackmandel in German; amêndoa in Portuguese.

The almond is related to the plum, cherry, peach, apricot, apple, hawthorn and mountain ash. It’s of the prunus genus in the rose family. In botanical terms, it’s not a true nut, its “reticulated hard stone shell” answering to the name “endocarp” and its “fruit” the aforementioned “drupe”.

Almonds were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt, believed to have been sourced in the Levant. Almost every ingredient worth salivating over seems to have been cultivated there in ancient times. What a gloriously abundant region it must have been, washed by the Mediterranean and blessed by the Gods.

Lore has it that an almond nut can be used as a preventative for inebriation, but I doubt that. Not if your choice of liqueur is Italy’s divine Amaretto di Saronno. As a young man, my wife used to give me a bottle every Christmas, but now it has to be avoided if it’s not to be the death of me.

Talking of which, “Tell me just how come,” the nervous lover asked with Katebushian whimsy, “they smell of bitter almonds?” This after she suspected a belladonna had been slipped into her coffee, in the darkly playful Coffee Homeground on Bush’s second album, Lionheart, in 1978. Pictures of Crippen, lipstick-smeared; torn wallpaper, have the walls got ears, here?

The thought of their strangely sweet-yet-bitter flavour inspires the poet, feeds the amygdala, where we process our emotional responses. There’s something about an almond that makes you think twice. I must have more, even if it kills me. Which it might. 

Almonds contain amygdalin, a compound which, once eaten, breaks down into benzaldehyde and cyanide. Amygdalin is the element that makes an almond bitter, but it is wild almonds that are the most likely culprits. Your store-bought variety has long since been genetically modified to ensure it’s safe to eat; Wikipedia informs us that the almond was among the first trees to be domesticated and that humans have eaten almonds or mutations of early almonds for 3,000 years. Food for thought: genetic modification, like almost anything else, is not as new as we might think.

What is nougat without almonds; what is the world without marzipan, that most divisive of delights. For every palate that adores marzipan there’s another that cannot abide it.

The almond is one of those ingredients rendered more desirable by their versatility in both sweet and savoury recipes. Sweet, from macaroons to biscotti, nougat to crescent-shaped qurabiya, and from frangipane, the classic almond pastry cream, in France to noghi (sugar-coated almonds) in Iran, home of the ancient almond tree. But they’re also used in savoury Moroccan tagines with dates and spices; in a pasanda curry in India, Chinese almond chicken, Sole Amandine in France.

This week I called Pina Marzagalli at her Mario’s ristorante in Green Point, many years after I had last been there. At Christmas we would go for dinner and she would make me two special things: her beautiful almond cake, and “mustard fruits”, giving me a jar of them to take home for the season. It was such a joy this week to find that Pina is still there, at 80, and that next year will mark 50 years since she and her late husband Mario first opened this Green Point institution. We must go back in 2021 to toast her 50th year at Mario’s.

It was the memory of Pina’s almond cake that inspired my below recipe for a crunchy almond tart, in which the nuts are caramelised before the filling goes into a prebaked ground almond pastry shell.

At Christmas I also sometimes roll out marzipan and cut out little rounds. Try it, it’s so easy. Pop a toasted almond in the middle, wrap it up, and then dip it into tempered chocolate and leave it on a board to set. Once set, trim around the base. Each marzipan sweet will have a little base of its own to stand on.

In the meantime, have a go at my Crunchy Almond Tart, which uses whole, flaked and ground almonds. Buon appetito. DM/TGIFood

Sources: Larousse Gastronomique / /


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