Jan 2 2013

On Almonds

Almonds!

Shelled Almonds in a Bowl

Almonds were a staple across Medieval Europe, particularly across the Mediterranean region and extending into the Middle East. It is believed the almond tree was first introduced to England by the Romans, but cultivation did not begin to occur until much later.

During a time when refrigeration was non-existant and pasteurization a technique known only in places like China, keeping dairy products stable was a difficult feat. Milk was frequently turned directly into cheeses or butter, which would keep longer in a cool cellar. In continental Medieval Europe, almonds became a hugely important part of the diet of all social strata. Why? Because of almond milk.

Almond milk does not require any refrigeration. It could be made days ahead of the intended use and stored without fear of spoiling. It also had a naturally high fat content and could be made into butter. Since it did not come from an animal, it was not on the forbidden list for Church-designated meatless days.

Almond milk was extensively used throughout the High Middle Ages across Europe; as I’ve begun to pore over recipes I have yet to find any non-cheese recipe that does not call for it. It is very inexpensive to prepare yourself, although be sure to only use sweet almonds. Bitter almonds will give you cyanide milk! Fortunately, most western countries (including the United States) have outlawed the sale of bitter almonds, so do not worry about accidentally mixing up a milky glass of death. Only sweet almonds will be available in your local store. I recommend buying in bulk – the price for a pound of almonds should be $3-$6 USD. Whatever you don’t use you can freeze.

As a bonus, almond milk is quite obviously a boon to folks like myself who are lactose intolerant. However, if you have a tree nut allergy, you will obviously want to steer clear of almond milk and use cow’s milk, soy milk, or goat’s milk instead. Almond milk is a good source of calcium, too.

I am on holiday through tomorrow, so I will not have the opportunity to try making almond milk quite yet. However, the recipe is pretty straightforward for those of you ready to try it at home.

RECIPE

This recipe is from Terrence Scully, c. 1300 CE, p. 315.

  • 1 cup of ground almonds (a blender will do just fine, but try it with a mortar and pestle if you have it for that authentic experience!)
  • 2 cups boiling water

Combine almonds and water. Let soak for about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Traditionally, you’d sieve the mixture (or pour it through cheesecloth) to remove the course grains. Today, you can just blend it in an electric mixer until the grains are all absorbed.

Yield: 2 cups almond milk.

Nice and simple! Comment if you tried making it – I’d love to hear how it went.

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Recipe source: Scully, Terence. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1995.
– Scully, Terence, ed. Le Viandier de Taillevent. An Edition of all Extant Manuscripts. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1988.

“Almonds in a Bowl” – Creative Commons license – source

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