The small, deciduous almond tree produces lovely white or light pink flowers. The fruit of the tree, almonds, is a very versatile nut and is used in many forms. Roasted almonds are a treat in themselves. California is the chief producer of the nut, followed by the Mediterranean countries of Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Spain and Syria. Iran is another major supplier and the Spanish also cultivate local sweet varieties from Malaga and Valencia. The plant is originally indigenous to Southwest Asia and has been documented throughout recorded history. There are several references to the nut in the Bible and many paintings depict the almond tree.
There are two variations of the plant, one producing sweet almonds and another that produces bitter almonds. Oil from the sweet variety is sometimes used in essential oils used for aromatherapy. Olive oil can be replaced by almond oil and almond syrup is made with orgeat syrup or a mixture of orange flower water, sweetened with sugar. The sweet variety of nut can be processed into flour, making low carbohydrate bread, biscuits or cakes that fit in with some dietary regimes. People who are lactose intolerant or vegans often use almond milk as a substitute. Almond butter is a spread, favored by people who find peanut butter too salty for their taste.
Many people are interested in healthy eating these days and almonds contain monounsaturated fat, considered to be good for lowering cholesterol levels. They are also a rich source of Vitamin E. Many dishes call for almonds and they are tasty when sprinkled over ice cream sundaes and other desserts. The Spanish have a traditional pudding, called Turron that is made from the nuts. Marzipan, macaroons and nougat all contain sweet almonds. It is traditional in the UK to buy sugar coated almonds at Christmas time. The delicate, Middle Eastern pastry known as Baklava also uses the nut. In China, there is a favorite dessert that is made from milk and the almond nut. The pasanda curries in Indian cuisine have the nut as a vital ingredient. The Chinese see the nut as a symbol for feminine beauty and the Indians consider the nut to be a good stimulant for the brain.