History of the almond.
In history the almond tree has always been a favourite, and in Shakespeare time as Gerard tells us, Almond trees were in our London gardens and orchards in great plenty. There are many references to it in early poetry.
Spenser alludes to it in the Fairy Queen.
‘Like to an almond tree ymounted hye,
On top of greene Selinis all alone,
Whith blossoms bravce bedecked daintily,
Whose tender locks do tremble every one,
At everie little breath that under Heaven is blowne’.
Shakespeare mentions it only once, very casually, in Trailus and Cressidas – ‘the parrot will not do more for an almond’ – An almond for a parrot being an old simile in his days for the height of temptation.
The early English name seems to have been Almande: it thus appears in the Romaunt of the rose, both this old name and its more modern form came through the French amande, derived from the late Latin amandela, in turn a form of the Greek amygdalus, the meaning of which is obscure.
The tree grows freely in Syria and Palestine: it is mentioned in Scripture as of the best fruit trees of the land of Canaan, and there are many other biblical references to it.
The Hebrew name, Shakad is very expressive: it signifies “hasty awakening” or to watch for, ‘hence’, to make haste, a fitting name for a tree, whose beautiful flowers appearing in Palestine in January, herald the awakening of creation. The rod of Aaron was an almond twig, and the fruit of the Almond was one of the subjects selected for the decoration of the golden candlestick employed in the tabernacle. The Jews still carry rods of Almond blossom to the synagogues on great festivals.
As almonds were reckoned amongst the best fruits of the land in the time of Jacob we may infer they were not cultivated in Egypt. Pliny however mentions the Almond among Egyptian fruit-trees, and it is not improbable that it was introduced between the days of Jacob and the period of the Exodus.
Almonds, as well as the oil pressed from them, were well known in Greece and Italy long before the Christian era. A beautiful fable in Greek mythology is associated with the tree. Servius relates that Phyllis was changed by the gods into an Almond tree, as an eternal compensation for her desertion by her lover Demophoon, which caused her death by grief. When too late Demophoon returned and then the leafless, flowerless and forlon tree was shown him as the memorial of Phyllis, he clasped it in his arms whereupon it burst into bloom – an emblem of true love inextinguishable by death.
During the Middle Ages, almonds became an important article of commerce in Central Europe their consumption in medieval cookery was enormous. An inventory, made in 1372, of the effects of Jeanne d’Evreux, queen of France, enumerates only 20lb. of sugar, but 500lb, of Almonds.
The Ancients attributed many wonderful virtues to the almond but it was chiefly valued for its supposed virtue in preventing intoxication. Plutarch mentions a great drinker of wine, who by the use of Bitter Almonds escaped being intoxicated and Gerard says: ‘Five or six, being taken, fastingdo keepe a man from being drunke’. This theory was probably the origin of the custom of eating salted almonds through dinner.