The Bible is brimming with specific references to a broad range of plants and foods, although sometimes their true meanings can be obscure or downright confusing until we are able to check them against the original Hebrew or Greek. A case in point is the carob tree (Ceretonia siliqua), an ancient legume in the pea family that is a close relative of the fava bean.
Matthew 3:4 states that John the Baptist subsisted in the wilderness on locusts and honey, in short foods that he was able to forage from the desert. Most biblical scholars now concur that the “locusts” were not the insect, rather the pods of the wild carob, which do indeed provide a source of nutrition, thus earning the plant its alternate name “St. John’s Bread.” Carobs are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible in connection with the story of the Prodigal Son, who feeds carob pods to pigs, but is so hungry he wants to eat them himself.
The carob tree also appears in the Jewish Talmud, where it is mentioned as a symbol of altruism because one must wait several years after planting the tree for it to bear fruit. Perhaps more pertinent, the pods take 11 months to ripen, thus requiring a healthy dose of patience before enjoying the benefits of the plant even when it is fully mature. Creative cultivation techniques can overcome the delayed fruitfulness issue, yet this old truism is probably best applied to the wild forms of the tree, which do indeed take many years to achieve productivity.
What most people do not realize is that for many centuries, cultivated carobs were developed with distinct varietal names and characteristics, just like apple trees, and that the wild carob, which yields very small pods, is used primarily as root stock onto which better types of carob are grafted. Grafting was well understood by ancient carob orchardists as a way to make the trees hardier and more resistant to drought. In countries like Cyprus, which has a long tradition of carob culture, carob trees are customarily sold on grafted root stock.
Even if we do not consume carob syrup or carob taffy, the carob is very much a part of daily life in another way: The seeds inside the pods were once used as a standard of weight for precious items, and this custom has survived in the form of the carat, which we still use to measure gemstones and the purity of metals. The ancient Roman coin called the solidus (it was pure gold — we get the English word “solid” from this Latin root) was equal to the weight of 24 carob seeds or 24 carats. This standard of measure is still used today all over the world.
The carob is native to the eastern Mediterranean region, but even during ancient times cultivation of the trees spread westward and eastward so that today the center of production stretches from India all the way to Portugal. Within the last 300 years, trees have been taken to Mexico and South America, to South Africa, and even to Australia and the United States — the first American trees were introduced in 1856. Regardless, Spain remains the country with the largest output of carob, mostly in the form of syrup or powder. These are commonly marketed as an alternative flavoring for chocolate.
Actually, the flavor of carob syrup is subject to many variables, not the least being the variety of tree from which the pods are harvested, the manner in which the syrup is boiled, and not the least, the terroir or soil and microclimate. Carob syrups can be just as distinctive as olive oil, with the darkest sorts tasting more like molasses than chocolate. Some of the lighter types of syrup may resemble dark honey. In fact the colloquial Cypriot Greek name for carob syrup means “black honey.”
Cypriot carob was once considered one of the finest of all the export carob syrups and the island still boasts of many old groves dotting the landscape. The Cypriot variety known as “Tylliria” (named for the region of the island from which it originated) is considered one of the best sorts and is available from several nurseries in the United States. World-wide, there are about 80 different recorded varieties of carob but not all of them are under commercial cultivation.
Without a doubt, carob trees create one of the most photogenic accents to the Mediterranean landscape. They are low, spreading, in shape similar to an old apple tree, generally no taller than about 35 feet, although they can grow as high as 50 to 55 feet. The trees are deep-rooted and develop thick trunks with very dark, leathery evergreen leaves. The leaves closely resemble the leaves of the fava bean, so it is easy to see the botanical kinship, not to mention that carob pods and fava bean pods also look very much alike, especially when they are green. The trees cast dense shade, so they are not planted close together — 30 feet apart seems to be the minimum spacing. The shady area under the trees becomes an important microclimate for many wild herbs and greens that are gathered for food. The trees are constantly dropping debris (old leaves, flowers, pods) so the soil directly beneath them acquires a number of beneficial nutrients not to mention dead plant matter so important for water retention.
Many farmers in the Mediterranean plant wheat or barley in the open spaces between the trees so that in the late spring the dark green trees stand out against the golden ripening grains—a striking contrast that invites creative photography. This symbiotic agriculture is practiced in Cyprus and the Greek islands where traditional cultivation techniques still persist. And not the least, since the carob tree is quite resistant to drought and even saline soil, it is an ideal plant for reforesting land that is turning into desert. Reforestation projects using carob have been undertaken in Southern Italy, Morocco, Israel and other countries where land reclamation has taken top priority.
If the carob tree has a downside, let it be said that the strange-looking flowers will never win a prize for beauty. They are green-tinged with red and similar in shape to the catkins on willow trees, although the flowers differ according to the sex of the tree. Carob trees are male, female or hermaphrodite (self-pollinating). The male flowers produce a powerful and offensive odor. While this may attract many pollinating insects, humans generally avoid the trees when they are in full bloom during September and October. It is for this same reason that you rarely see male carob trees employed as shade trees around houses.
Aside from high acidity, which they do not like, carobs are not too particular about soil type and will even thrive on rocky ground, but they must have good drainage. Furthermore they are not too frost hardy, especially the young trees. A cold snap of 25 degrees F will defoliate the plants; 20 F will kill the woody part. Thus their hardiness is similar to that of the sweet orange, and this limits carob culture to parts of the United States where the climate is mild and winters most like those in the Mediterranean. Just the same, once established, mature 25- to 30-year-old trees will yield as much as 200 pounds of carob pods and remain productive for as long as 100 years. For this reason carob orchards are normally treated as long-term investments with high value placed on the older trees.
The pod is the part of the carob that is used for food, not the seeds, although the processed seeds yield Tragasol, a commercial thickener for baked goods, ice cream, sauces, and cosmetics. The pods are harvested when they turn brown before the onset of fall rains — they will rot quickly if exposed to water at this critical point in their development. The harvested pods are further sun-dried for one or two days, and then processed to make the syrup. Each pod is lined with pulpy cotton-like fur and it is this part of the pod from which the syrup is extracted. It is possible, like John the Baptist, to chew this pod lining, or better, to boil the pods in water to make a strong sweet tea, and live off of it as an emergency food. Due to the high pectin content, carob is easily digested and helps the stomach process other foods, so it is a well-known remedy for heartburn.
The commercial production of carob syrup entails large quantities of pods, which are chopped and then boiled slowly to extract all the syrup. This syrup is then strained and refined and cooked down until thick, a process that takes several days. In Cyprus, this syrup is sometimes boiled down until it forms taffy called pastelli, which is then pulled on giant iron hooks until soft and pliant. The village of Anoyira hosts an annual pastelli festival and is one of the major sources for exported Cypriot carob syrup. The syrup is also dehydrated to make a powder that is used in cooking and baking like powdered chocolate.
Carob pods were also fed to pigs — there are many references to this in ancient texts, in general as an emergency food during times of famine or crop shortages. While the pods were an inexpensive source of fodder, they were also instrumental in giving the pork a distinctively sweet flavor. This unique taste was further enhanced by using carob wood to smoke hams and sausages; green branches were often laid over the hot coals to increase the amount of fragrant smoke. These traditional culinary techniques are now only practiced in limited areas of the Mediterranean, yet they remind us of the important interdependency of traditional diet and environment, and especially how the local ingredients at hand can literally define the “taste” of any given food culture.
Carobs can be grown in the United States in parts of the Southwest, especially Arizona and New Mexico, Southern California, and Florida. There are several nurseries that sell carob trees, among them Moon Valley Nurseries in Arizona and Bonita Creek Nursery near San Diego. Their locally raised plants are perhaps the best choice since they are already acclimated to the soil and climate where they are being cultivated. There seems to be a lot of Internet hyperbole devoted to the carob as an ornamental, but these trees create a good deal of litter, so I would think carefully about planting them near the house in spite of the dense shade they may offer. In Cyprus, carobs are attractive to snakes because the trees also attract small birds, lizards, tree rats, fruit bats, snails, and similar small wildlife. A whole ecosystem will evolve around the tree, especially when it is grown under desert conditions. While this may be a plus from an environmental standpoint, it does not provide good play space for children. This is why carobs are generally treated as plants for field culture as opposed to gardens.
Regardless of where they are planted, carobs have a long-standing reputation as a source of home remedies, hence the old moniker “the universal provider.” In ancient Greek medicine, the ripe pods were considered “hot” and therefore the syrup was good for chills or sore throat. The syrup is also alkaline and mildly laxative, hence its use as a purgative for the intestines, acid indigestion, and the like. In addition to this, the syrup contains phytoestrogens that are said to be beneficial to women after menopause.
Having said that, keep in mind that people have widely different reactions to carob, so what may work for one may not work for another. This is due in part to the complex chemistry of the plant and the variability of one’s natural sensitivities. So on that note, it is probably not a good idea to look toward the carob tree as a medical panacea, but rather, to enjoy it as a delightful flavoring in food, in short the high-energy “chocolate bar” of the ancients.
Use carob in this medieval-inspired dessert: Byzantine Toffee Recipe
William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian, author, and heirloom gardener living in Devon, Pennsylvania.