How Do Almonds Grow? Our Food Editor Finds Out More About Everyones Favorite Nut
Did you know that California is the only place in North America where almonds are commercially grown? And that almonds are the most popular nut in the U.S.? Those facts were just a couple of things I learned when I went to the Golden State to visit one of Blue Diamond's almond orchards with a small group of editors from New York. Even more exciting, we arrived just in time to catch the trees in bloom!
On food trips like this, I always meet interesting people and I was especially excited to be with friends and colleagues from New York-this time I was surrounded by Family Circle food editor Sarah Wharton, test kitchen director for Every Day Rachel Ray Janet McCracken, and registered dietitian nutritionist Bonnie Taub-Dix.
A short drive north from Sacramento, almond trees arranged in precise rows were in full bloom as far as the eye could see. Each of the delicate pink and white flowers will develop into an almond. They reminded me of cherry blossoms and are nearly as fleeting-they bloom for only four to six weeks in early spring.
The orchards we visited are part of Blue Diamond, a 108-years-old grower-owned company of more than 3,000 farmers and 1,500 employees, making it one of the world's leading agricultural cooperatives. If you've ever baked cookies or cakes with sliced or slivered almonds, or bought a snack mix with almonds in it, chances are those almonds were grown in California and sorted at the Blue Diamond campus in the heart of Sacramento.
Almonds are not native to California. In fact, the first trees were brought by Franciscan friars from Spain in the 18th century. Almond trees need bees and two or more almond varieties planted in close proximity to ensure cross-pollination (they do not self-pollinate). The farmers paint a ring of color near the base of the trunks to signify each variety. Only two varieties are necessary but some farmers plant as many as 10 varieties. Each type of tree produces an almond fruit (yes, almonds are a fruit) with a slightly different shape, texture, and flavor profile.
Millions of bees are trucked in from every one of the lower 48 states just to feed and pollinate during the bloom. Without them there would be no almonds. They have not fed all winter long and are hungry and weak after the long winter. This year the farmers were particularly concerned because constant rain and cold since the start of the bloom had prevented the bees from feeding. They are picky eaters and will only emerge from their hives when it's warm and sunny. Can you blame them? We arrived on the first day with bright sunshine and warm temperatures and the bees buzzed around us in a joyful dance. The farmers were excited too, knowing that the bees would feed before the blossoms faded and fell.
When it's time to harvest the mature almonds in late summer and early fall, a machine called a tree shaker is used to make quick work of the task. A single shaker can remove all the almonds from a tree in about 10 seconds and can shake down hundreds of trees in a single day.
Once harvested, almonds are taken to the sorting facility in Sacramento where they are first sorted by variety and then take one of numerous paths to different sections of the factory. Some of the almonds are turned into nut butter that is the base for almond milk. Others are roasted and salted for snacking or blanched and slivered for baking. In case you're wondering, my favorite way to eat almonds is out of hand, but I like baking with them, too. This spectacular flourless chocolate-almond cake is a good place to start.