Almonds are part of the plum family and are native to North Africa, West Asia and the Mediterranean. Botanically-speaking, almonds are a fruit and there are two forms of the plant, one (often with white flowers) producing sweet almonds, and the other (often with pink flowers) producing bitter almonds. The English word almond is derived from the French amande, which in turn is a derivative of the old Latin word for almond, amygdalus, literally meaning "tonsil plum." Ancient Romans also referred to almonds as "Greek nuts," since they were first cultivated in Greece.
Greek mythology tells of the beautiful princess Phyllis, who was left waiting at the altar on her wedding day by her intended, Demophon. Phyllis waited for years for him to return, but finally died of a broken heart. In sympathy, the gods transformed Phyllis into an almond tree, which became a symbol of hope. When the errant, remorseful Demonphon returned to find Phyllis as a leafless, flowerless tree, he embraced the tree. The tree suddenly burst into bloom, a demonstration of love not conquered by death.
Domesticated almonds appear in the Early Bronze Age (3000–2000 BC) of the Near East, or possibly a little earlier. A well-known archaeological example of the almond is the fruit found in Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt (c. 1325 BC).
Sweet almonds are used in marzipan, nougat, many pastries (including French macarons), noghl and other sweets and desserts. During Medieval times frumentry (a pudding made from whole wheat and almond milk) was commonly served with meals of venison. One of the early European uses of almond milk was in the preparation of the French dessert blancmange, a delicate, all white, chilled custard whose British version of the 14th and 15th century, blancmanger, included shredded chicken breast, sugar, rice, and almond milk or ground almonds.
A traditional Christmas soup in Spain is Sopa de Almendras (Almond Soup) and it is delicious!
Sopa de Almendras (Almond Soup)
200g almonds, skinned and blanched
50ml olive oil
2 slices day old bread, crusts removed and diced
10 peppercorns, crushed
1.5 litres chicken or vegetable stock
1 tsp vinegar or lemon juice
ground cumin or cinnamon
Fry the almonds, bread, saffron and garlic in the oil, then put them in a blender with the peppercorns and cumin. Blend with the vinegar and a little of the stock to a purée. Mix this paste with the remaining stock in a suitable pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 15 minutes and serve garnished with a few slivers of toasted almonds, croutons or some chopped parsley or mint.