by Sun’s Dragon
John the Baptist lived in “the wilderness” and survived on wild honey and locusts. Apparently, it wasn’t the insect variety of locusts that kept him alive, but the beans from the carob tree. St John's-bread, or locust bean are also common names used for this tree. He would have done well in the Algarve as carob trees and honey are in abundance here.
The tree itself
This is a magnificent, evergreen that can grow to 50ft tall and 50ft wide. Its taproot can delve up to 20 meters deep, ensuring its survival in even the driest of climates. It can grow in the poorest of soils and is said to have survived the last ice age.
This tree has been cultivated by man for at least 4,000 years and is mostly found in Mediterranean areas and the Middle East. It can produce a prodigious amount of carobs and sustain an amazing amount of bees which, in turn, will produce huge amounts of honey. The shade cast by this enormous tree is invaluable in hot climates and greatly appreciated.
The carob fruit
The seeds of the carob tree are found in pods that hang like peas, which is hardly surprising as the tree itself is part of the pea family. Regardless of the size of the pod from which it came, each seed (carob) is so uniform in size and mass, that it was used to measure weights, namely gold. Hence the name carat (derived from carob) for the weight of actual gold found in each nugget; this term is still used today by jewellers and gold dealers the world over.
Spreading the wealth
The carob tree has been introduced to many parts of the world:
- Spaniards brought the carob to Mexico and South America.
- The British took the carob to South Africa, India and Australia.
- The carob was introduced to California in 1873 for commercial production.
The general consensus is that, wherever citrus trees grow, the carob will do well
The carob is said to have many nutritional and health benefits including:
- Improving digestion
- Lowering of cholesterol in the blood
- Treating diarrhoea in humans
- Helping to prevent certain cancers
- Helping to prevent anaemia
- An aid to curing coughs and flu
- Helping to prevent or treat osteoporosis
Once upon a time, singers would chew the pod husks to clear their throats and improve their voices!
Carob in food
Carob seeds removed from the pod are used to make locust bean gum, sometimes known as Ceratonia. This product is especially good in confectionary as it can be used as a stabilizer, emulsifier or thickener; it can also prevent sugar crystallising.
The dark brown or black pods are edible too and are ground into flour that is rich in sucrose as well as containing Magnesium, Calcium, Iron, Phosphorus, Potassium Manganese, Barium, Copper, Nickel and the vitamins A, B, B2, B3, and D.
The flour is often used in health foods and for giving a chocolate flavour. It’s low in calories, fat free, rich in pectin and protein and has no oxalic acid, which interferes with the absorption of calcium; so all in all a healthier option to cocoa powder.
Carob is also used to make molasses and alcohol and, in addition, can also be used as a substitute for coffee and eggs!
The carob pod is also widely sold for animal feed and the local cattle, sheep, horses and donkeys (not to mention the dogs) thrive on the windfall carobs. I know my dogs love it when the neighbour’s carob pods fall into my garden!
It’s a common sight in the Algarve to see the “Carob pickers” out in full force from mid-August, before the rain comes. Using their long rods, whacking away in the tall branches of the trees, gathering the fallen carobs, that will then be sold immediately.
It’s hard, backbreaking work and they begin very early in the day to avoid the worst of the heat and continue until dusk. It’s often a family affair, with the men folk wielding the long sticks and the women and children gathering the fruit.
The sacks filled with harvested carobs usually weigh around 15kg and the aim is to harvest at least 200kg per day per worker, that’s 13 sacks each! No wonder the men folk suffer from cricked necks and the women and children end up with hunched backs!
The wood of the carob tree
It’s not just seeds of the carob which are put to good use. Wood turning is an art. Using a lathe and specialist tools, wood turners produce the most amazing pieces of craft work. Carob wood is hard and has fantastic colour grains that are cherished by wood workers. Handmade, hard wood furniture is much sought after and pieces made from the carob tree will darken and improve with age.
Carob logs are excellent for wood burning fires because the hardness of the wood, the closeness of the grain and the absence of moisture ensures great heat. Widely used over the centuries in the Mediterranean areas, this tree has sustained millions of people in all its uses.
I had a mature carob tree in my first garden in the Algarve, it produced well over 10 sacks of fruit every year, that’s more than 150kg of carobs. I have to admit the mess drove me up the wall and I was thrilled when the gypsies offered to “clean them up for me”. I am so glad I don’t have one in my garden where I live now but I am surrounded by them in the adjoining fields and, as I said, my dogs love to chew on them.
I’ll leave you with a tidbit of useless information. Each pod has approximately the same energy as a Mars bar. If a mature carob tree produces 100kg of carobs per annum– that’s equivalent to 300,000 Mars bars per hectare! Yum!