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What is the difference between almonds and Marcona almonds (besides the price tag?) Read on to find out!

To say that almonds are having a moment would be a bit of an understatement. While people have been munching them for millenia, increased consumption of foods rich in protein and healthy unsaturated fats (such as almonds) has completely transformed the global nut industry.

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California, the world’s biggest almond producer, shipped a record 2.25 billion tons in 2017-2018. This year alone, The Golden State is forecasted to produce another 2.5 billion tons, yet the most highly prized variety comes from Spain. Often served blanched, roasted, dusted with sea salt, and tossed with enough extra virgin olive oil to give them a seductive sheen, nothing elevates a gourmet meat and cheese platter like a handful of Spanish Marcona almonds. But what makes them such a hot commodity?

Read on to learn more about the difference between Marcona almonds and regular almonds.

The Difference Between Marconas and Regular Almonds

Marconas—also known as the Queen of Almonds—are easy to tell apart from standard California varieties. Besides being rounder and flatter in shape, as an import from Spain, they tend to be significantly more expensive and difficult to find at the grocery store.

what are marcona almonds?

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Aaron Brown, who runs the California Marcona Company and Almondipity with wife Norik Naraghi, explains that Marcona almonds are “a little bit softer and have a much thicker shell and skin” than those commonly grown in the U.S. Their flavor, he says, is more buttery and earthy. They also roast well, which gives them a satisfying crunch. The texture is often likened to a macadamia nut.

The Nonpareil, considered the high-end standard of California-grown almonds, is typically bigger, longer, pointed on one end, and has a lighter-colored skin. And different varieties lend themselves to certain preparations. According to Brown, Nonpareils are “the main go-to for snacking.” Other types, like the Fritz or Butte, work better for roasting, flavoring, and making almond butter, while the Sonora works well for blanching and slicing.

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Another differentiator is how different types of almonds are consumed. “Snacking almonds” are a relatively modern concept; throughout history, nuts have mainly been used for cooking and baking. In Spain, Marconas are one of several local varieties that most often get used to make dessert like marzipan or turrón (a traditional candy nougat), or sprinkled over salads. “In the U.S. it’s turned into a specialty product,” says Brown, “and it’s not that easy to get in serious bulk.”

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According to Brown, approximately 85 percent of the world’s almonds are produced in California, while only about 5 percent comes from Spain. “Even if 20 percent of that is Marcona, it’s still miniscule,” he points out. “It’s a rare commodity.” Which is why Marconas typically sell for $16-20 per pound and are twice as expensive as California-grown Nonpareils.

Bridging the Gap Between Spanish and California Almonds

As the name implies, the California Marcona Company sells products made with locally-grown Marcona almonds. “My father- in-law, Wendell, and his father, Hashem, were long-time almond growers,” Brown explains. Once UC Davis deemed Marcona trees safe to plant in local soil, Brown’s father-in-law decided to give them a try. They thrived in the central California climate, but Brown and his family discovered that they’re not without their issues.

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“[Marconas] may look the same,” Brown says, “but you get half the yield per acre because of the thickness of the shell and hull. That’s probably a big reason why there are so few grown in California, and why you need to command a higher price.”

Like a typical monarch, it seems the Queen of Almonds is a truly tough nut to crack.

Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Tetiana Bykovets on Unsplash and David Bishop Inc. / Stockbyte / Getty Images

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