At California Marcona Company the Queen of Almonds Reigns
by Dana Koster
In spring, it seems you can’t drive ten miles in Stanislaus County without encountering an almond orchard in its pink-and-white blossomed glory. The sight of almond trees in bloom is part of what defines the region. But if you went to the Modesto Certified Farmer’s Market in 2013, you’ve probably seen that there’s a new almond in town, and it goes by the name Marcona.
Rounder, shorter and sweeter than traditional almonds, the Marcona almond is hugely popular in Spain. Often referred to as the “Queen of Almonds,” this buttery variety is commonly found in tapas bars, served with olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt.
Up until recently, though, it was rare to come across the variety in the United States. If you did get lucky enough to find Marconas, they were almost certainly imported from Europe.
Enter the California Marcona Company. Run by husband-and-wife team Aaron Brown and Norik Naraghi, this local business prides itself on controlling its product from start to finish, overseeing the growing, roasting, seasoning, packaging and distribution of its Marcona nuts.
Norik’s family has been growing almonds, walnuts and pistachios in the Valley since the early 1960’s, but it wasn’t until five years ago that her father Wendell took notice of the Marcona. “People had tried to copy the Marcona almond before him, but they just roasted and salted California almonds the way the Spanish do,” Brown says. “They tasted good, but they didn’t have that Marcona flavor and texture.”
So Wendell Naraghi decided to give the real thing a try. He located the correct plants at UC Davis and had them propagated at a local nursery—then, he planted a whopping 30 acres of the trees. “If he’s going to try something, he’s going to go ahead and give it his all,” says Brown.
Once the Marcona crops had matured, there was the small matter of deciding what to do with them. Brown says he and Norik originally experimented with roasting the nuts in a commercial facility, but they just weren’t happy with the flavor, so they started tinkering with roasting at home – a step made possible by the California Cottage Food Act, which allows licensed food operators to produce small, controlled quantities at home.
“Commercial roasters have to use canola oil or sunflower oil because of the smoke point, but we do it in smaller batches at a lower heat, so we’re able to use pure olive oil,” Brown says. “We utilize only high level ingredients: olive oil, Marcona nuts and a little bit of sea salt. That’s all.”
This focus on high-quality ingredients extends to their newest venture, a single-ingredient almond butter they call Almondipity. Made from a variety of traditional California almonds patented by Naraghi’s grandfather in 1980, Almondipity contains no oil, no salt, no sweeteners—just ground, whole almonds.
“A lot of almond butters are made from the leftovers, the stuff that’s not good enough to be sold,” says Naraghi. Using these premium nuts and a special grinding process, Naraghi and Brown are able to produce a naturally sweet, smooth almond butter that’s catching on with health nuts all over the Valley.
Proven to lower your bad cholesterol and risk of cardiovascular disease, almonds have long been considered a superfood. “When I did Get Fit in Modesto, almond butter was on the menu almost every day as one of the snacks,” Naraghi says. “When people at the gym heard we were making our own, everybody started asking for it.”
“You can’t open a magazine without seeing almond butter,” Brown adds. “We’re really riding the wave of popularity—hopefully a really large, long wave.”
Fans of Marcona almonds and Almondipity can expect to see the products back at the ModestoCertified Farmer’s Market when it reopens in April, or find them on the web at www.almondipity.com.