On the street, they’re called “yuppie crack.” In boutique and specialty groceries, they’re labeled Marcona almonds. Fried, salty and wickedly addictive, you’ll quickly be hooked on these Spanish jewels, licking your palm after the first sinfully slick handful. Priced anywhere from $8-$25 a pound, they’re not cheap, but then addictions and indulgences never are.
|Photography by Barney Taxel|
Marcona almonds are to their California cousins what Kalamatas are to canned black olives. Grown along Spain’s Mediterranean coast, from Valencia south toward MÃ¡laga, the heart-shaped Marcona is plump, smooth and almost always sold skinned and fried in olive or sunflower oil and dusted with fine sea salt. The taste is stronger, sweeter, toastier and lasts longer on the palate than a domestic almond. It “snaps” on the tooth — with a crisp and buttery crunch, a little firmer than a cashew.
Spanish nut growers have been harvesting Marcona almonds for centuries. They are the first trees to bloom, spreading a snowy white blanket of blossoms in the early spring. Vulnerable to frost, the harvest is cyclical; one year yields a bumper crop and the next a bust. Collecting the nuts is often done by hand using the same methods of 500 years ago — a tarp spread under the tree and a long stick wielded to shake the nuts loose. One tree may only give up about 10 pounds of almonds.
It’s only been in the past decade or so that Americans have become aware of Marcona almonds, hailed as the “queen” of nuts (macadamias are king by virtue of price).
Don Harris, owner of LaTienda.com, an online importer of fine Spanish foods and wine, has seen big changes in the past 30 years. Until the mid-’70s, he explains, Spain, under dictatorial rule, operated as a closed economy and exporting was not high on the country’s agenda. When that era ended, a new generation of entrepreneurs began to evolve, “and they had a different view of sharing flavors.”
As the Spanish wine industry took off, the foods they were traditionally paired with, such as olives, cheeses and nuts, came along for the ride. By the mid-’90s, these products had become much better known. Recognizing their unique taste and culinary properties, chefs all across the country were quick to incorporate them into their recipes and menus.
Michael Herschman of Vivo is among them. Since he took over the kitchen last year at the 150-seat downtown Cleveland restaurant, Marcona almonds have begun to show up in pesto, tapenade and even desserts. Herschman takes a “deconstructed” approach to building a total taste experience. While it sounds curiously engineered, it’s a method based on simplicity.
“Each ingredient can stand on its own as a great one,” explains the spirited chef, “yet works in harmony with the other ingredients that surround it.” Among those he favors — each with a distinctive personality — are white anchovies, caraway dust, capers, pine nuts, celery hearts and the regal Spanish Marconas.
“These almonds have their own natural complexity,” he observes. This makes them singularly pleasing when eaten alone, and yet they also work in sync with other flavors — especially those that are fatty, briny or acidic. So it’s no surprise that he uses the nuts in a dish featuring slices of seared tuna, roasted onions, cucumber noodles and a smoky tomato fondue. Each element in this presentation is stand-alone delicious, but together they become a culinary composition that emerges better than the sum of its parts. Herschman also adds them to the crust in his blood orange and lemon curd tart. Here they echo the crunch of the cornmeal and serve as a salty counterpoint to the tart curd and sweet fruit.
On occasion, Vivo patrons are greeted with a small bowl of glistening Marcona almonds at their table. Herschman likes the idea that people begin by savoring the intricate mixture of flavor, saltiness and texture before they encounter them on the menu. And as they nibble away, he’s become very adept at recognizing the look that means someone’s been “hooked.”