The almond, or Prunus dulcis (also known as Amygdalus communis L.), originated in southwest Asia and the Middle East, as far as the Indus River in Pakistan. Prunus dulcis and its synonyms officially refer to the tree from which the edible almond seeds are cultivated.
Although commonly grouped with other tree nuts like nutritious cashews, what you know as an almond is actually a “drupe,” a fruit with an outer hull encasing a shell with the seed inside.
Almond domestication started when, centuries ago, farmers began to identify and pick the sweet type of almond, although the history is fuzzy on how man was able to correctly select the sweet almond over its bitter brother. Bitter almonds are occasionally used in oil form, but it’s widely understood that bitter almond is toxic in even some small doses as it contains cyanide. In the U.S., all commercially grown and distributed almonds are sweet almonds.
Interestingly, there are some uses of bitter almond oil that may be undertaken with a doctor’s supervision. When the cyanide has been extracted from bitter almond oil, it has antiviral, antibacterial, anti-itch, antifungal and antispasmodic properties.
As with most foods, almonds have varieties within their general categories. While the typical sweet almond varieties available in the U.S. are grown in California, popularity is growing for Marcona almonds, a special product harvested exclusively in Spain. For cooking purposes, Marcona almonds are even sweeter than standard almonds, plumper and have a “wet” texture. When oil is extracted, the different varieties of sweet almond oil can be subtly noticed, but all sweet almonds have basically the same nutritional value.
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