Almonds, Part 1 – Beginnings

Almonds  (Prunus dulcis) originated in Asia. The word is derived from the Greek word for almond, amygdala ( also two groups of neurons in the brain). The word then became the Latin amandola and finally the Old French word almande or allemande.
Known by the Romans as Greek nuts and widely used in the Middle Ages to make soups and desserts it was eaten dried throughout the ages by Nomadic tribes as a healthy addition to their diets. Almonds originated in Palestine, Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan and were amongst the earliest domesticated fruit trees on earth. The fruit is not a true nut, but a drupe. The period between 3,000 – 2,000 BC sees almonds proliferate in the East and in Europe. Today the USA is the biggest producer in the World, followed by the Spain, Syria, Italy, Iran, Morocco, Algeria with Tunisia and Greece as minor contributors.  The balance of the production is made up from Turkey, Lebanon and China.

There are two kinds of almonds, the edible sweet almond and the bitter almond that contains hydrocyanic acid and can be poisonous. Bitter almonds are used in small amounts strictly for flavouring purposes and have been for centuries. Almonds lower the levels of LDL cholesterol by as much as 9% and increase the HDL by 4.6%.  The Ayurveda health care system teaches that the almond nourishes the brain, increases intellectual levels and longevity and tests have proved that almonds do have immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory and anti-hepatotoxicity effects.

In South Africa almonds have been an essential part of the Cape cuisine since 1652 when Jan van Riebeeck first arrived there. A vibrant multitude of settlers in the Cape ensured that an extraordinarily rich and complex culture in food was created at the outset. The East, Malaysia, Indonesia, the French and the Dutch are only a few of the nations that write the recipes of the South African cuisine.

One of the earlier recipes including almonds refers to a traditional French recipe for calissons d’Aix a delicious biscuit baked in a hot oven for only ten minutes (image above).  A late 1600’s recipe for Almond loaf pops quite often but since it requires about three hours of kneading and I have never made it, I have decided not to include it today. A late 1700’s recipe for an Almond cake as well as my mother’s (or grandmother before her) almond tart. These are so rich that one can be sure no thought was given to cholesterol and other modern day qualms.

Nowadays ground almonds are used in biscuits, cakes, sauces, slivered in meat dishes and roasted whole as a snack.


600 g sweet almonds
35 grams butter
125 ml orange water
20 egg yolks
8 egg whites
125 ml brandy
2 lemons, zest only
500 g superfine caster sugar

Pre heat the oven to 280 C
Prepare a wide cake pan (similar to one that would be used for a Breton flat cake) with greaseproof or silicon paper

Combine butter, sugar and yolks until they are white and fluffy in a food processor. Add the brandy, orange water and zest and then mix in the almonds and the egg whites, adding the ground almond after each white.  Combine well and process for about 10 minutes.

Bake for 30 – 45 minutes, watching it carefully.  When golden, remove and allow to rest.


I am going to supply this recipe exactly as it appears in her very old, already disintegrating, handwritten book, but am converting quantities to metric ones for ease of reference.

Line a deep tart tin with sweet pastry and spread with apricot jam. Half fill with a mixture made as follows:

Beat 125 grams of butter with 125 grams of sugar, add 4 large eggs one at a time and then stir in 125 grams of ground almonds and a pinch of salt.

That was it!!!  I bake it in a preheated oven on 190 C for 30 – 40 minutes.

To pair, a suggestion by a very busy yet extremely knowledgeable young lady from Tea Escapade, “I think I would pair the almond tart with White Peony by Pearl Fine Teas. While White Peony is flavorful it is a White Tea and thus is significantly milder than a black or green tea. Thus the taste of the tea will not overpower the taste of the almond tart.  Simultaneously, the natural sweetness of White Peony allows one to enjoy a cup without the addition of sweetener“.


750g peeled almonds
1 kg demarara sugar
10 ml ground ginger
2 ml salt
15 ml butter
15 ml cake flour
30 ml milk
375 ml water

Combine sugar, butter and water in a heavy bottomed saucepan and stir over low heat until the sugar has been dissolved completely and it has a. Cook until soft ball stage. Now mix the flour with the milk and add to the ginger and the salt to the liquid. Remove from heat and beat with a wooden spoon until cool.  Add the nuts immediately and put spoonfuls onto a greased baking tray.

Allow to set, when hard, store in an airtight tin.



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8 responses to “Almonds, Part 1 – Beginnings

  1. Truly informative post!

  2. Thanks Tara! We aim to please …. 🙂

    No flour in the recipe? How wide is the pan? Could I use a spring-form pan?
    My standard dessert recipe for Passover is almond macaroons from Joan Nathan’s 25+ year old book. This could be very good.

  4. Hi Tess,

    No flour at all and yes, you would have to use a spring form pan!
    I use the same one that I do do make a Breton type flat cake i.e. around 24 – 26cm.

    The original recipe calls for 45 min kneading, but I processed for about 10 minutes and it was fine.

  5. Tess – would love to hear your almond macaroon recipe (or post me a link and I’ll add it!)

  6. Ok, the weekend is here so I’ll have some time.

  7. Ah, my favourite ingredient of all time: almonds. I imagine you have already read my post on almonds:

    So I will leave it at that, and thank you for sharing some more wonderful almond recipes and information. 🙂

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