Reading through Almonds: Recipes, History, Culture and seeing photographs of almonds in their shell took me right back to my childhood, when there always a bowl of these classic nuts on our coffee table — an old metal nutcracker sitting right beside it.
Almonds have long been a favourite — I remember the bomboniere (little bags of pastel coloured sugared almonds) always given as favours by hosts to their guests at weddings and baptisms; the netted bags of almonds in the shell that were always available at the local greengrocer.
'The almond, nature's most versatile and healthful nut, has been celebrated by civilisations since antiquity,' according to cookery writers Barbara Bryant and Betsy Fentress, the authors of Almonds: Recipes, History, Culture. 'Almonds have appeared in both ancient and modern cuisines, art, literature, poetry and sacred texts for thousands of years, both as food and as a symbol of fertility, honour, beauty and love. Today, health and nutrition experts laud the many benefits of almonds, which have been elevated to the status of a superfood'.
In the preface to the book, Ms Bryant tells how she first fell in love with almonds as a child in St Louis, when the pièce de résistance of her monthly purchase at the village store was a Hershey bar with almonds. Oh yes! Chocolate and almonds is a favourite of mine too. She also remembers croissants with almond filling, marzipan fruits from a Swiss bakery, almond crostata, sugar coated almonds at Easter and Christmas, and unshelled almonds in the toe of her Christmas stocking.
Almonds have a long and intriguing history. The authors details that 'the earliest known almonds were found on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, thought to have been there more than nineteen-thousand years ago.' Domesticated almonds dating back to the Bronze Age (3300-1200 BCE) have also been found in Jordan. The ancient Egyptians depicted almonds in works of art painted on the walls of Egyptian pharaohs. And celebrated artists such as Renoir and Van Gogh featured almonds in their paintings.
Franciscan friars introduced almond trees from Spain to California in the US in the mid-1700s and the first recognised almond orchard was planted in 1843 along the Bear River in the Sacramento Valley. Research tells me that almonds were introduced to South Australia in 1836, first planted on Kangaroo Island, followed by plantings on the Central Adelaide Plains. Today, almonds are still grown along the River Murray in South Australia, and also in Victoria and New South Wales. The Riverland, Sunraysia and Riverina are the major growing regions, and almonds are now Australia's fastest growing agricultural export. In 2013, we produced more than 70,000 tonnes, overtaking Spain as the world's second largest producer. It is anticipated that by 2015, production in Australia will be in excess of 75,000 tonnes annually.
Along with the historical details in the book, there is nutritional data, as well as informative dot points and suggestions on how to incorporate almonds into the kitchen. For example, did you know that almond meal is coarser than almond flour? Almond meal often contains the skins.
Now let's focus on the best part of this delicious little book! Among the 60 or more recipes there are starters and snacks; salads and vegetables; meals featuring pasta and grains; meat and fish dishes in 'land and sea'; and of course, baked goods and desserts. Totally yummy! My favourites? If I must choose, then perhaps the almond semifreddo and port wine poached figs with almond praline (pictured below). Um, no... perhaps the chocolate almond bark with raisins and chilli! Or maybe the pear and almond frangipane tart? Or the florentines? Or the chocolate-amaretto torte! Honestly, there are so many beautiful recipes to cook from here. This is definitely a cookbook to add to your collection... and savour!
Almonds: Recipes, History, Culture by Barbara Bryant and Betsy Fentress, $29.99, Arbon Publishing. Thank you kindly to the publicity team at Arbon, as well as the authors for giving me the opportunity to review this title.
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