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An ancestor of stone fruits such as nectarines, peaches, plums and cherries, the almond is categorized botanically as a fruit. The almond fruit grows on trees closely resembling peach trees in size and shape, and has a tough gray-green hull that looks similar to an elongated peach. At maturity, the hull splits open to reveal the almond shell, which encloses the nut. Almonds are believed to be one of the worlds oldest cultivated foods, but theories differ on how, exactly, they evolved into one of natures most nutritious foods. One theory holds they originated in ancient China and central Asia, evolving from a wild species, prunus ulmifolia. Others contend almonds originated on the steppes between the former Soviet Republics and northwestern Iran. What is known is that almonds were a valuable commodity on the ?Silk Road? between Asia and the Mediterranean. Explorers carried almonds with them as sustenance, and much of the land they were passing through provided fertile ground for the kernels they dropped along the route. Dry, hot summer and winter rains proved to be ideal growing conditions. Thus, almond trees spread to the Mediterranean, where they flourished in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and throughout the region. In the 16th century Persians were emigrating to northern India, bringing their familiar foods and introducing new flavors to the cuisine of that country. This blending of cuisines developed into the Muglai style that introduced, among many other foods, almonds and almond milk. In classical times Romans presented gifts of sugared almonds to important dignitaries as well as personal friends. At weddings they also tossed almonds at the bride and groom as a symbol of fertility.

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