When we first saw these pods, we had absolutely no idea what they were. In the end I took a pod into our favourite restaurant to ask José what they were. He was surprised I didn’t know as it’s the key ingredient in some of my favourite cakes! Do you know?
Their Portuguese name is alfarroba, and the English is carob. The photographs in this post are all of unripe pods, they turn brown/black when ripe hence the word black in my title. What about the word gold though . . . . .
Carob once a useful food for humans in times of famine, thanks to its high protein and fibre levels, is now generally used as a chocolate substitute or in the production of locust bean gum, a thickening agent. It also, apparently, makes an excellent brandy and syrup. That is not the reason though that carob trees (alfarrobeira) were once considered by some to be one of the most profitable trees to have on your land. As you can see from the gallery below they don’t require much care, provide great shade and grow vigorously even on rocky land and in drought conditions. Most importantly though the seed pods are a high value animal feed for cattle, pigs, horses, donkeys and sheep. But that’s not the only reason they are considered gold.
They also happen to be the source of the measure of actual gold. For centuries the seeds of a carob were used to measure gold and diamonds, because it was believed (wrongly) that there was little variance in their mass distribution. Jewellers may have long realised that carob seeds varied as much as others seeds but the word ‘carat’ has stuck as a measure!
They can grow into enormous trees, with some having a girth of more than 12 metres. They begin producing pods at around 7 to 8 years and will continue to do so for centuries. There are trees that are more than a thousand years old! Check out this site for tree records. If you are thinking of growing your own carob tree, then be aware you may need more than one tree in your locality as some trees are either male or female. There again you might be fine with just the one tree as I have also discovered some carob trees are hermaphrodite or exhibit polygamous inflorescences – the latter I think means that they have bisexual and unisexual flowers closely grouped together to form an efficient structured unit. Can you tell I have been blinded by the science? Think we better move on.
It is believed it was the Moors who first brought this ancient tree to Portugal and Spain, and some of my flora books describe it as a ‘relic of cultivation’. And in many parts of the Iberian Peninsula that is probably correct. However it is worth noting that the Portuguese were still cultivating new cultivators in the late 19th century and up until the late 20th century Spain outstripped the rest of the world in carob cultivation. When Spain significantly reduced production in the latter half of the last century, Portugal and Italy took over as the main producers and Portugal is currently the world’s top producer of carob. However they are not the top exporter, Spain exports more carob than Portugal (more info here). I can only presume that the Portuguese prefer to eat it and who can blame them, as carob in the hands of a great baker is so much more than a chocolate substitute, feed for pigs and donkeys or thickening agent. It is a delight in its own right, and Portuguese alfarroba cakes are particularly delicious!
By the way if you were wondering about the abundance of square shaped photographs, July 2021 it is a Squares challenge month and the theme is #TreeSquare.