Almonds and Mysticism

By Christopher Zoukis

When archaeologists uncovered Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were both destroyed by the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., they found carbonized almonds.  This discovery indicated that almonds were cultivated in Italy prior to the first century. 

By 716 A.D., almonds were being cultivated in Northern Europe, for they are named in the charter granted to a monastery in Normandy by Chilperic II, who was the King of France.  And in 812, Charlemagne gave orders stipulating almond trees were to be planted on his imperial farms.  By the 14th century, almonds were being farmed on the Greek Islands.  Excess production was traded throughout Europe.  So valuable were almonds as a commodity they were taxed by the Knights Templar in 1411.  Image courtesy

Probably introduced by the Romans, almonds became an important food staple in England.  The chefs of King Richard III compiled a cookbook called the Forme of Cury, which provided recipes for “Crème of Almand, Grewel of Almand, and Cawdel of Almand Mylke.”  The price for a pound of almonds in 14th century England was 2 pence for a pound.

The recipe for “Crème of Almand” was as follows:

“Take Almand blached, grynde hem and drawe hem up thykke, set hem oue the fyre & boile hem.  Set hem adou and spryng hem with Vyneg, cast hem abrode uppon a cloth and cast uppoa hem sug.  Whan it is colde gadre it togydre and lshe it in dyssh.”

The word “almond” found its way into the English language by way of France, where it was the “amande.”  Under Queen Elizabeth, “an almond for a parrot” was an idiomatic expression describing an irresistible temptation.  Even Shakespeare used it.  In Troilus and Cressida, Thersites said, “The parrot will not do more for an almond.”  And Richard Wagner borrowed the idea of Aaron’s rod that budded for his opera Tannhauser, in which the Pope’s staff blossoms. 

Because of the mystical heritage inferred by Aaron’s rod that budded, magicians used only magic-wands made of almond wood to perform their tricks.  And the divining rods employed by dowsers were taken from an almond tree.  These divining rods were used to find ground water, oil, and other minerals.  Dowsing by means of almond rods was a form of prognostic magic based on the belief that any effect, good or bad, would be accompanied by some portent observable by men.  The movement of the rod was a telltale, which had its source in either magical spirits or God.  These almond-wood divining rods were called “Mosaic rods” or “rods of Aaron.”

This practice of divination by means of almond-wood was so common that Samuel Sheppard was moved to compose a witticism about it.  In 1651, the ditty was published in a book entitled Epigrams theological, philosophical, and romantick.

            “Some Sorcerers do boast they have a Rod,

            Gather’d with Vowes and Sacrifice,

            And (borne about) will strangely nod

            To hidden Treasure where it lies;

            Mankind is (sure) that Rod divine,

            For to the Wealthiest (ever) they decline.”

In the 17th century, Ninon de Lenclos, who was one of the great fashion trendsetters of Paris, endorsed an almond-based cold cream, which, according to Mademoiselle Lenclos, rescued her delicate skin from the ravages of time, dissipating wrinkles.  She formed her own cosmetics company, producing Ninon de Lenclos Ointment.  The ointment was composed of four ounces oil of almonds, three ounces of lard from pork, and one ounce of spermaceti, a white wax-like substance taken from the oil in the head of a sperm whale, along with leek juice and rose water. 

The ascendancy and sway of the Ottoman Empire changed the way Europeans ate.  Spices infiltrated European cuisine, along with creamy almond sauces and almond-based sweets such as marzipan and chewy nougat.  As a result, the cultivation of almonds spread through Greece, Italy, North Africa, Spain, France, and Portugal.  Almond milk became a popular and necessary substitute for animal milk.  The almonds were blanched and then crushed into a powder to which water was added.