Nuts in a world gone nuts

California supplies nearly half of all fruits, vegetables, and nuts (of the non-gun-toting kind) to the US market. But the state is in the throes of a grave drought and on track to experience the driest year of the past 50 decades.

Much of California’s agriculture is concentrated in those parts of the state that the drought has hit the hardest. The state has endured arid conditions for 11 of the past 15 years and there’s every reason to believe this is just the beginning of a prolonged spell.

California produces over 80% of the world’s almonds and 43% and 28% of the world’s pistachios and walnuts, respectively. Astonishingly, it takes about a gallon of water to grow one almond, and nearly five gallons to produce a walnut. The amount of water used each year to produce almonds would provide suffice Los Angeles homes and businesses for almost three years. Unfortunately, since it makes matters worse, to make up for the increasing shortage, farmers are pumping up groundwater – the underground water that feeds aquifers and which itself has been shrinking for many years.

Blossoming_Almond_TreeThe almond is technically the seed of the fruit of a tree that famously bears fragrant pink and white flowers. Van Gogh was fond of its miraculous outbursts. In botanical terms, the almond is not a nut, but a drupe: any fleshy or pulpy fruit enclosing a stone containing one or more seeds e.g. an olive, plum, or peach. The almond’s fruit has a thick, leathery, grey-green coat with a downy exterior. Called a hull, it covers a hard, woody shell and inside the shell is the “nut”.

Almonds are thought to have originated in western Asia and North Africa. Wild almonds are bitter and the kernel produces deadly cyanide. Eating just a few dozen can be fatal. Selecting the sweet type, from the many bitter types in the wild, marked the beginning of the domesticated almond. The Romans called the almond the “Greek nut”, believing that it was the Ancient Greeks who first cultivated them.

Almond-growing in California has an interesting history. The trees were originally brought to California when missions were created by the Spanish, but cultivation was abandoned when the missions were closed. Then, in 1840, almond trees were brought over from Europe and planted in New England. Because the climate on the Eastern seaboard did not support their growth, the trees were brought to California where they thrived.

Almonds are high in monounsaturated fats, the same type of health-promoting fats found in olive oil. In addition to their cholesterol-lowering effects, almonds’ ability to reduce the risk of heart disease may also be due to the antioxidant action of the vitamin E found in them. Just recently, a study carried out by Dutch scientists seems to indicate that eating a handful of nuts every day is highly beneficial. Researchers found a 23% lower incidence of death during the 10-year study in people eating at least 10g of nuts or peanuts a day. However, there was no benefit from peanut butter, which is high in salt and trans fats.

The Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis, celebrated for Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, also wrote the novel Saint Francis. Van Gogh would have appreciated the following passage:

“When an almond tree became covered with blossoms in the heart of winter, all the trees around it began to jeer. ‘What vanity,’ they screamed, ‘what insolence! Just think, it believes it can bring spring in this way!’ The flowers of the almond tree blushed for shame. ‘Forgive me, my sisters,’ said the tree. ‘I swear I did not want to blossom, but suddenly I felt a warm springtime breeze in my heart.’”

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