The dry landscapes of the Mediterranean coast are dotted with traditional crops whose production dates back to ancient times. Well known is the classic Mediterranean triad (wheat, vine and olive tree), but it should also include a very particular tree, carob or carob. Its curious fruit, the carob, today is experiencing a new value after being despised for many years for being considered little more than livestock feed.
A purely Mediterranean hardy tree
The carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua), also known as garrofero, garrofer, garrofera or garrover, among many other synonyms and regional nicknames, belongs to the genus Ceratonia, which etymologically derives from the Greek word Keras, horn, by the appearance of the fruit. Trees of this genus are part of the family of the Fabaceae, fabaceae or legumes, and in fact the fruit of the carob tree has the same appearance of a bean or broad bean pod, but with very significant differences.
The carob trees are native trees of the mediterranean regions and we know that they already had a notable importance in Classical Antiquity, when the seeds came to be used as a standard for carat, a unit of weight for gems and jewels. It is believed that its cultivation was introduced into Egypt from Palestine or Syria, passing to Greece, Italy, Spain and North Africa. The conquerors also took it to America, having a certain importance especially in Mexico, and it also began to be cultivated in Portugal, which has become one of the leading producers worldwide.
The carob is a tree with a rustic appearance, Evergreen and wide crowns, hemispherical in profile, with a thick trunk of resistant branches covered with small dark green leaves. They can exceed ten meters in height, although the average size is usually around five or six.
They are trees very heat resistant, to drought and arid soils, they also support Mediterranean humidity well and do not need much water to survive. It is not uncommon to find fields of abandoned and dry almond trees dotted with carob trees that, left to their own devices, continue to endure green and stoic long periods of sun with hardly any water.
A very peculiar fruit: the carob or carob
What is most striking about this tree is undoubtedly the curious fruit that populates its branches. The carob grows in long, flexible pods, which immature resemble broad beans because of their green color and large size. But, unlike most legumes, those same pods become edible when ripe, with very hard seeds and impossible to consume raw without being previously processed.
Indeed, the ripe carob is recognized by the very dark brown color, almost black, and the smooth somewhat contracted from the outside, an effect of moisture loss. Although on the outside they are rigid and have a texture that may be reminiscent of leather, the inside keeps a sweet, tender and sticky pulp that can be eaten raw, with the only drawback being its strong flavor.
The seeds, dark, almond-shaped and variable in size, have a yellowish inner endosperm called locust bean, which when ground into flour is used in chemical industries with pharmaceutical, cosmetic and textile applications. And it also has food uses as an additive.
The carob as food: from poor ingredient to fashionable product
Already in ancient times the carob was used as animal food, and that has been its main destination for many years until recently. The pulp of the pods is still used today as part of the cattle feed sheep, cattle and pigs, also very common in the diet of horses and donkeys, or dried and ground for chickens.
As a minimal care battle crop, the carob tree provided a very valuable food in times of famine, gaining special relevance in the postwar period of the last century. Today basic products such as sugar, coffee, flour or cocoa became luxury items, and the carob bean became a raw material to make substitutes of all kinds.
The garrofa drink and the fake chocolate are still remembered today as lost flavors of other times, where a tablet hard as stone and of questionable taste was considered a luxury. In Murcia, for example, the past testimony of the Hermitage of Light remains, located in the natural environment of El Valle, where the friars made as best they could a substitute for chocolates with carob flour.
After abandoning its cultivation a bit with the economic recovery, the carob tree is putting back in value thanks to new studies pointing to its beneficial properties and the many culinary possibilities it offers. The rise in healthy trends, with a growing interest in “natural” products or more sustainable alternatives, has also contributed to refocusing on carob.
The pulp of the ripe pods is dehydrated, roasted and ground to transform into a more or less refined flour with multiple uses. It can be found marketed as is, as an ingredient to use at home, as a substitute for cocoa or as another flour, gluten-free, and with a very peculiar sweet taste.
With carob flour or carob powder you can make bakery products with or without gluten, cookies, cakes and desserts creamy or spoonful, usually in vegan recipes to replace eggs and dairy products, for example in custard substitutes. It can also be consumed directly dissolved in water, milk or vegetable alternatives, such as alternative of cocoa or soluble drinkss. Its flavor is pleasant since it is sweet, but it can hit first since, obviously, it does not taste like chocolate.
Due to its high sugar content, another traditional product that is increasingly in demand on a commercial level is carob syrup or molasses. Very similar to other vegetable “honeys”, such as cane or pomegranate, it has a very dark toasted color, with fragrant aromas and a very peculiar penetrating flavor.
The recovery of the carob as food has led many producers, artisans and small companies to commercialize all kinds of products made with carob as raw material, from soluble preparations for breakfast to candies, gummies, beers and spirits, energy bars, sweets and, of course, pseudo-chocolates of various flavors.
It is also claimed as a local product by haute cuisine chefs and pastry chefs, and it is not uncommon to find it in very personal proposals by authors in Michelin-starred restaurants, such as Magoga de Cartagena, or Jordi Roca’s sweet creations at El Celler de Can Roca.
It tastes undeniably sweet, but very intense and aromatic, penetrating, reminiscent of black liquorice or coffee, with notes of more bitter cocoa. On the dry side, from the outset, it may be too shocking for unaccustomed palates, but that intensity multiplies its culinary possibilities. In bakeries, for example, it makes very good crumbs with stronger and more acidic doughs, such as rye breads, and when it is salty it goes well. hearty stews, meats and game.
The locust bean gum Made from seeds, it is also used in the food industry as an authorized additive under code E410. It is used as thickener and gelling agent, very common in sauces, creams and in the preparation of ice cream and similar desserts, as it prevents the appearance of crystals and provides a more stable and creamy homogeneous texture.
Properties and benefits of its consumption, a new superfood?
Spain was the world leader in carob production for decades, but its cultivation was abandoned as livestock declined in field work, being replaced by other productions with more lucrative prospects. However, in recent years interest has been recovering, with numerous initiatives to reactivate the crop, both on the Mediterranean coast and to spread it through Andalusian regions where there was not so much tradition.
Allusion is made to its benefits for the earth and the natural environment, although where it is really putting the focus is on its healthy properties, getting on the bandwagon of the superfood craze. Without being a miracle product, the carob does stand out in several nutritional aspects, especially when compared to products such as soluble cocoa drinks or common refined wheat flour.
It is a very energetic food rich in sugars, but low glycemic index. This means that these sugars are slowly absorbed, releasing energy little by little and avoiding blood sugar spikes. It also has a remarkable amount of fiber, thus increasing satiety, and provides minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc or phosphorus, as well as some vitamins of group B and A. It is low in fat and does not contain gluten or lactose, at least in its natural form.
Recent studies such as an investigation in which scientists from the Segura Center for Soil Science and Applied Biology participated, dependent on the Higher Center for Scientific Research (CEBAS-CSIC), defends the beneficial properties of D-pinitol, a substance naturally present in the carob pod. The works point to its antidiabetic and antioxidant properties and with the potential to reduce the risk of developing diseases such as cancer.
Recovering your production can also be very beneficial for agriculture and rural development, highlighting a positive traditional local crop for the land itself, which prevents desertification and practically requires no natural resources, and which can help in the future to reduce cocoa farms, always surrounded by controversy.
Photos | iStock – Pixabay – Philmarin – Vegan Feast Catering – Keith McDuffee – Edsel Little – Relivate
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