Of carob pods and carats


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Walking in the Mellieha countryside this weekend, in the traffic-free and solitary whereabouts of Ghajn Tuta, I came across an ancient carob tree laden with ripe pods. The carob, known to science as Ceratonia siliqua and as harrub to the Maltese is a hardy evergreen tree which graces the Maltese landscape and retains a canopy of green in the otherwise parched and dry summer Mediterranean landscape.

The carob is an evergreen flowering shrub, belonging to the pea family. It is native to the Mediterranean region especially in the eastern and southern area of this great Sea and is a very common species here in Malta where it grows without much care or cultivation and is legally protected, although countless ancient carobs unfortunately continue to be regularly uprooted to make way for development.

The carob’s fruit, its pod, has been consumed since ancient times by the peoples of the Mediterranean. The Bible makes numerous references to it such as in the parable of the Prodigal Son where the man who squandered all his riches and ended up working as a swineherd, longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything”.

On the basis of another biblical reference, it is also known as Saint John’s Bread or locust bean given that when Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist was fasting in the desert, “the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.” The locusts referred to in the biblical passage are not of the grasshopper variety but carob pods!

In Malta the ripe carob fruit is used to produce a syrup called “Gulepp tal-Harrub” which is used to treat chest colds and coughs and also forms the basis of the “karamelli tal-harrub” sweets which are popular for consumption during Lent when it is forbidden to consume sugary sweets. In times of scarcity, the carob pod was ground into a flour to produce bread. During the siege of Malta in World War 2, carob pods became highly prized for their nutritional value and fetched the highest-ever recorded market price of a penny a pod!

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I prefer to eat my carob pods straight from nature. Detached from the tree, rinsed under clean, running water and chewed one small mouthful at a time. Beware of the very hard seeds inside the pod which can easily break a tooth! Eat them in the countryside and spit the seeds onto the soil to help propagate new trees or savour them at home. An unrefined, woody sweet flavour which leaves a delectable aftertaste in one’s mouth!

But does one simply eat carobs for fun? There are many ascribed nutrition and health benefits which can be summarised as follows:

Carob tannins contain Gallic acid that works as an analgesic, anti-allergic, antibacterial, antioxidant, antiviral and antiseptic. It improves digestion and lowers cholesterol level in the blood and is used for treating bowel disorders in children and adults alike. Since it does not contain caffeine, carob is beneficial for people with high blood pressure.

The vitamin E content in carob helps in treating cough, flu and anaemia while the Gallic acid helps in preventing and treating polio in children. Carob fights against osteoporosis due to its richness in phosphorus and calcium. Carob pod husks are chewed by singers to clear the voice and throat.

And the seeds? Small and hard there is not much of a culinary use and unless you wish to plant them in a pot to grow little carob trees, just throw them away into the countryside where they may either take root or serve as food for the birds. But have one final look at them and hold one in your hands. For the humble carob seed you are holding was used by the ancients as a unit of measure for weighing gold and precious stones.  The carob’s scientific name Ceratonia siliqua originates from the Greek name for carob seeds: keration.  The word carat used in this sense is a corruption of this Greek word!

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23 thoughts on “Of carob pods and carats

  1. Very interesting indeed. As children my mother used to walk us all the way from Fleur de Lys to San Guljan for a swim and we would pick the harrub to chew on along the way. Glad to see you’re back, missed your blog.

    • Hi Alice! Thanks for your comment. That was one long walk for a swim so you definitely needed the energy! Keep following. Always nice to read your personal touch to my little stories!

  2. The word ‘locust’ seems to have been used for the carob pod much earlier than it was for the insect.Also I have personally found that chewing a ripe freshly cut carob pod, helps to alleviate thirst and give a sweet taste to the fresh water, I drink, when I am working in my field , during these hot summer months. Ceratonia siliqua certainly was a God sent gift to the Maltese, even during the last war, when a single carob pod cost a penny, (roughly one euro cent), or more. Such a shame that every single day, I see and/or hear of one of these magnificent trees being destroyed, in the name of “development”.

    • Thanks for your comment Simon! Loved your story. You have actually encouraged me to make some gulepp from this year’s harvest. May the rains reward us this coming autumn! Keep well.

  3. I notice that they are ripening and maturing earlier this year. no doubt due to the lack of rainfall and the warmer weather. Careful not to consume any part which is showing signs of mold as the infection it causes in the guts is very painful. Looking forward to making some julep. Recipes on the internet.

    • In fact I was not expecting to find ripe pods so early as usually they are ready at the end of August/early September if I remember correctly! Thanks re health warning and me too, can’t wait to make the gulepp! It will be my first time….. 🙂

  4. The link between carob and carat, I did not know. I have often savoured carob pods in the wild, often to the bewilderment of those in my company, but I have so far survived – and now I know that Leslie is a fellow conspirator 🙂

  5. A beautiful tree it is too. I am just tuning into this carob pod thing, maybe it might bring my cholesterol down! Worth a try! Is it sold as a powder too I wonder?

    • `There is a carob flour which is sold but it is imported. Unfortunately in Malta people have lost contact with the carob’s usefulness except for the few who continue to produce the carob syrup in the summer.

  6. I remember by late mother chewing on harrub at my grandparents farmhouse in Zebbiegh and that to us meant she was pregnant !!!! My grandmother used to make her eat carobs because apparently they produce breast milk !! Dont know whether that is true or not but I do remember my grandfather feeding the sheeps with carobs, so I guess there must be a grain of truth.

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