White blossoms in Catalonia and Andalucia yield an ancient delight, almost as much a part of life as the blue sky over the countryside. The Marcona almond is called the Queen Almond for its incomparable, delicately sweet flavor. Thought by some to be the ultimate almond, Marcona almonds from Spain have a uniquely buttery and sweet flavour. Lightly salted, they are just the thing to eat with a cold glass of dry sherry and delicious with any appetizers and are a sophisticated snack to enjoy before a meal.
Particularly in southern Catalonia and Andalucia the countryside is dotted with almond groves and kitchens throughout the region make use of creamy almonds for soups, meat dishes, pastries and seasonal treats.
On February 10th every year, without fail and regardless of snow, rain or shine a truly magical act of nature takes place in the olive groves of Catalan, the almond trees blossom. Almost overnight the almonds prepare to share their beauty with the misty dawns and the chilly sunsets of late winter. The deep pinks and snowy whites of the rich almond blossoms surround the silvery leaves of the olives trees. The air is infused with the fragrant, delicate scent of the almond flowers.
Four weeks after flowering new almond nuts the size of thumbnails appear in bright green clusters, and rapidly increase in size as the warmer weather approaches. The almonds are irrigated through the hot summer months, which is vital to ensure perfect, fully flavoured nuts. Without irrigation a large percentage of the almonds would dry out and become what is called ‘tight skinned’ which are nor palatable or marketable.
The almonds are hand picked as soon as their outer velvety husks start to split. The Marcona are the first to be picked in late August and the Valencia in early September, each variety being kept separate. The husks are removed by hand and the nuts are then laid out on nets to dry in the sun, turning each net daily for a period of four days.
Ounce for ounce, almonds are one of the most nutritionally dense nuts. As well as providing an array of powerful flavonoids, almonds are among the richest sources of vitamin E in the diet. A one-ounce, 164-calorie serving of almonds, about a handful, is also a very good source of manganese, magnesium, copper, vitamin B2 and phosphorous, and delivers a heart healthy monounsaturated fat and other nutrients as well.
Almonds are an ancient food that has been written about in historical texts, including the Bible. The Romans referred to almonds as the ‘Greek Nut’ in reference to the civilization suggested to have first cultivated them. Almonds are now grown in many of the countries that boarder the Mediterranean Sea including Spain, Italy, Portugal and Morocco.
Almonds that are still in their shells have the longest shelf life. Refrigerated shelled almonds will keep for several months, while if stored in a freezer, almonds can keep for up to a year.
In addition to being eaten raw, almonds are a wonderful addition to a variety of recipes from salads to baked goods or sprinkled over desserts, particularly ice cream dishes.
Whole almonds can be chopped by hand or can be placed in the food processor. If using a food processor it is best to pulse on and of a few times, instead of running the blade constantly, as this will help ensure that you end up with chopped almonds rather than almond butter.
If you want to remove the almond skin, blanch them for a few minutes until you notice the almond skin beginning to swell. Drain them and then rinse them under cold water. Pinch the cooled almonds between your thumb and index finger and the skin should slide right off the almond meat.
The Marcona variety of almond, which is shorter, rounder, sweeter, and more delicate in texture than other varieties, originated in Spain and is becoming popular in North America and other parts of the world. Marcona almonds are traditionally served after being lightly fried in oil, and are also used by Spanish chefs to prepare a dessert called turrón.
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