In 2012, a spate of advertisements, Indian in scope and American at heart, made the rounds on TV. These 30-second-to-one-minute spots starred kids acing quiz, swimming, athletics, football, and badminton competitions, a bride bidding a tearful goodbye to her mother, and a man sitting in a bright, spacious cabin, indicating professional achievement. This 2012 campaign for California almonds, reminiscent of Bournvita and Cadbury’s commercials that also hinged on wunderkinds and ‘precious moments’, respectively, was average unto itself. And yet, the product at the heart of this campaign has become a marketing exemplar. Until 2012, no horticultural crop, however entrenched in Indian culinary or customary tradition, had received such media planning attention. Never had almonds been prefixed with ‘California’ in common parlance. The campaign’s tagline, ‘Tomorrow Begins Today’, was meant to underline the almond’s role in India primarily as ‘brain food’.
Seven years on, this tagline seems more prescient about the dominance of a certain almond cultivar itself.
The California almond, really an umbrella term for some 30 varieties that grow in the US’ ‘Golden State’, has kicked Iranian and Afghan variants—once India’s almonds of choice—to the curb. It’s now a default for festive season gifting, and in marzipan, almond milk, almond flour, and almond butter. You see it in kirana shops (mom-and-pop retailers) and premium superstores alike, whether loose or packaged.
You can’t escape the California almond.
Figures by the Almond Board of California (ABC) show that the US accounted for 82% of imported almonds in India in 2018. And in the 2017-2018 crop year (an almond crop year is from August to July), shipments to India touched 100,000 tonnes, up 19.7% from the previous crop year’s 83,500 tonnes. India is now on its way to becoming the world’s largest importer of American almonds.
No California almond cultivar is as visible as the Nonpareil. It’s to almond what the Cavendish is to the banana and Gala is to the apple: ubiquitous, but not the best. Smooth-textured, rather bland, and easy to blanch, the Nonpareil sits at the other end of the spectrum from Iran’s rugged, sweeter, oilier, non-pasteurised (and therefore organic) Mamra variant. But Iran and its neighbours, the traditional homes of the almond, now account for just about 1% of global production.
The decline of Asian cultivars, including in India’s only almond bowls of Pulwama and Budgam in Kashmir, is as much a function of market forces and ageing agricultural practices as it is the fat research and marketing budgets of the ABC. Almonds, once out of reach for most Indians, are now more accessible than ever. This factor alone has been Nonpareil’s driving force, says Niranjan Das Soni, a retired almond trader based in Navi Mumbai.
“If you’re asked to choose between California, Mamra, and Afghan Gurbandi almonds on the basis of taste, you’ll choose Mamra, Gurbandi (provided it’s good quality), then California,” says Soni. “But this will go out the window once you learn California almonds retail for Rs 600-700 a kilo, and Mamra can cost up to six times more.”