ALMONDS

5 December 2011

Countless food commentators have observed the peculiar Japanese tradition of fugu – the consumption of deadly pufferfish sashimi. Typically these writers will cite a unique samurai mindset that stares down death with eyes wide open. The well-trained chefs who prepare fugu leave just a hint of the potentially fatal liver or skin attached to the flesh, just enough to numb the lips and make you wonder ‘Is this the end?’.

What makes fugu unique is not its lethality, rather it is those diners’ deliberate decision to run the toxic gauntlet. After all, there are countless examples of poisonous foods that have made it to our tables over the centuries.

One of the most striking examples is the humble almond. The varietal we consume today is a domesticated version of the original wild tree of 4000BC. Wild almonds contain amygdalin, a chemical compound that becomes cyanide when chewed. This is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a complicated trade off for any Bronze Age pastry chef.

To remove the toxic loading of the almond you have to blanch them in water, or roast them slowly. But think about it. How many Mesopotamian foragers did themselves in with cyanide poisoning before some lucky punter dropped their lunch bag in the fire?

Seriously, I wonder how some of these foods ever come into use.

By pure chance the almond tree evolved to be devoid of poison. But being humans, we still keep going back to the deadly wild almonds. Italian biscuits, French macaroons, amaretto liqueur. The list goes on. All these are still made with the bitter wild almond. Soaked, of course. I think. Suddenly fugu doesn’t seem so weird.

Meanwhile almonds have poisoned our language too. We call them nuts, but their actually a seed. The seed of a leathery sage-coloured plum. You see the almond is more closely related to apricots and peaches than it is to a walnut. Ever sucked on the kernel of an apricot and tasted that sweet-sour flavour, thinking to yourself I recognise this, but couldn’t tell you what it is. Well, next summer you’ll know for sure. It’s almonds. Apricot kernels are even used to synthesise bitter almond perfumes for the fragrance industry, as they give the aroma without running the risk of poisoning.

So keep this in mind when you’re chomping down on that raspberry-almond friand at your local café. Nibble away dear reader, nibble away. But in the back of your mind, ask yourself – did they remember to soak the almonds? It’s your own little fugu moment!
Double lamb cutlets with beetroot skordalia

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