The Universality of Carob

The ancient and little-known carob tree is beneficial not only for the sweet syrup from its pods and its use as an alternative to chocolate, but also for its medicinal properties.

| Winter 2012/2013

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.

Carob Flavor

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.

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