It's a dazzling spring day in California, and almond grower Dave Phippen is showing me around his land – though it looks less like a working farm, and rather more like the sort of scene that might adorn a tasteful birthday card. Everything is pink: the trees dotted with their rosy blossoms, the ground carpeted by a layer of fallen petals – even the light, filtered as it is through a network of branches. Not long ago, Dave and his neighbours congregated in a field just like this to celebrate the annual blossom festival: under a shower of flowers thrown, confetti-like, by onlookers, a girl from the local town was crowned this year's Almond Queen.
The Phippens have been in the almond business for more than three generations. And what a business it is: almonds – and nuts more broadly – occupy an ever more important spot on the culinary stage. Roasted, salted, encased in foil or packed in tins, they line whole aisles of the supermarket. Mini-packs, interspersed with bits of flaked coconut and dried berries, pop up alongside the tills as you wait to pay. Whole, they're sold as a snack; flaked or ground, they're an ingredient. Over the past decade, per capita consumption of almonds has more than doubled.
In the past year alone, Marks and Spencer have seen their mixed nut sales increase by some 35 per cent. "If my dad could see the way we do things today, he would be amazed," reflects Phippen. Alongside his brother Scott, he has turned what used to be a relatively small-scale family farm into a serious international business. A short walk from the calm of the orchards, the family's own processing plant looms.
After harvesting in late August, the Phippens hull, shell, and fumigate their nuts before shipping them off to suppliers directly. In this regard, they're relatively unusual; the processing operation was introduced by the brothers when their father handed them control. Another touch of modernity comes from the enormous field of solar panels alongside the processing plant: the Phippens produce enough energy to power their entire operation; any excess goes back into the California grid.
Once shipped, there are few corners of the globe that the Phippens' almonds don't reach. In Germany, they're ground up and used for marzipan. In India, they're soaked overnight and fed to schoolchildren for breakfast. In Japan, self-styled French patisseries sprinkle them onto just about anything. And in the UK, they're used for everything from a pre-dinner appetiser to an after-dinner torte. No wonder their sales figures are so impressive.
But perhaps we should have seen this coming. Nuts have for some time been more than just a bar snack. And the peanut, which, unlike almonds and their tree-grown cousins – the brazil, the cashew, the pistachio and the hazelnut – grows on a bush, relinquished its reign long ago. Try and find a café or restaurant menu that doesn't include nuts in some form. It's difficult. Whether it's a sprinkling of flaked almonds on a croissant or a scattering of walnuts on a salad, they're there.
"About a third of the dishes we serve have nuts in," agrees Anna Hansen, head chef and founder of The Modern Pantry. "And that's just our savoury food. There is such an array of tastes and flavour profiles. Toasted, they introduce a whole new texture – a richness, which really brings the dish together. We always offer a form of spiced, toasted nut as an appetiser. And for desserts, they make all kind of things: macaroons, amaretti biscuits, cakes and tarts. Ground almonds offer a totally different texture from flour." But it's not just their versatility as an ingredient that recommends them. Nuts, after all, are healthy – extremely so.
A 28-gram serving of brazils – equivalent, roughly, to a modest handful – fulfils more than a quarter of your recommended daily magnesium needs. The same amount of almonds – as well as being rich in magnesium, calcium and iron – offers an impressive source of non-animal protein: 16 per cent of recommended daily intake. It also provides 14 per cent of your fibre requirement.
"The nutrient level in nuts can supplement the diet in the same way a vitamin pill could," explains nutritionist Stephanie Moore. "There are all sorts of reasons why they're good for you. For one thing, they have lots of antioxidants. Brazil nuts are packed with selenium, which is something that we tend not to get enough of. Likewise magnesium and zinc, which is very important for the immune system and the metabolism. The other thing that's great is tryptophan, which is a direct precursor to serotonin and can be used to treat depression."
Even the relatively high calorie count comes with good news: repeated trials have demonstrated the appetite-suppressing properties of nuts. Unlike most other snacks – crisps, chocolate bars, biscuits – nuts sit low on the glycemic index. They don't release sugar into the blood stream too quickly, so they don't provoke the same boost-slump cycle that other foods can.
On the other hand, their satiety score is high. Thanks to the aforementioned combination of fibre and protein, nuts can keep you "fuller, longer" than most other foods. More recently, researchers have claimed that even those who eat more calories after incorporating almonds into their lives don't gain the corresponding weight.
Of course, all this is before one takes into account the growing enthusiasm for nut-based "alternatives" to other foods. Can't eat wheat? Thanks to ground almonds, you can have your (gluten-free) cake and eat it. Don't drink dairy? Soy milk isn't the only option anymore: almond milk – the fastest-growing beverage category in the United States – has become a supermarket staple, with hazelnut following swiftly behind. Neither, of course, is much good for those who suffer nut allergies (and Department of Health statistics would suggest that is a growing group) but both offer roughly the same amount of calcium as regular milk, and each has its own flavour. "Nut milk has none of the chalkiness of soy milk," explains Aylie Cooke, associate grocery co-ordinator at Whole Foods Market.
The result is an ever-expanding market for the Phippens and their neighbours to fill – and not just in the West. Over the past decade, the Far East has embraced nuts in a whole new way.
China, where 90 per cent of nuts consumed are eaten as snacks, is on course to become the world's largest almond importer (overtaking Spain, the traditional front-runner), while Japan has carved out a niche importing only the highest-quality specimen: externally perfect, and sweet on the tongue, almonds for the Asian market have become a premium product. Curiously, the result of all this hasn't been a shortage of nuts. On the contrary, advances in farming practices and a string of strong springs have left farmers producing higher yields than even before.
The industry is not without its challenges, chiefly of the environmental strain. Since almond farmers rely on hives of European honey bees to pollinate their crops, the use of pesticides can be problematic. Every effort, says Phippen, is being made to minimise their use in the region. But, with new techniques in the pipeline and a growing emphasis on organic methods, things are looking good for the nut farmers of the world.
Let's go nuts!
Roasted and spiced
"I make up different spice mixes and apply them to different nuts," says Anna Hansen of The Modern Pantry. "The trick is to sprinkle your nuts with some water or some olive oil to help the spices stick and then pop them on a tray in the oven. I usually set the temperature at around 140C and then let them roast for 10 or 15 minutes. That way they're roasted all the way through."
Many of us have a jar of peanut butter in their cupboard – but how about cashew, almond or brazil-nut butter? "Peanut butters tend to have added fats and so on, but the alternatives are fabulous," says nutritionist Stephanie Moore. Available from supermarkets and health-food stores, they offer an appetising, rather more grown-up, alternative. Or try making your own by grinding roast nuts with oil in a food processor and adding honey if desired.
Make your own mix
"I like having a mix of almonds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds at home," says Hansen. Most nuts keep well, so it's possible to buy in bulk and mix yourself.
Traditionally given to Indian children as they head off to school, soaked almonds can offer a crisper, crunchier equivalent. "Just leave them in water overnight to plump them up," says Moore.
"Ground almonds aren't just for people avoiding flour – plenty of cakes use them anyway," observes Whole Foods' Aylie Cooke. Popular in Italy, almond-based cakes tend to offer a richer, longer-lasting alternative to sponges."Chestnut flour is delicious, too," she adds.