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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Horse and jockey passing by soul in torment

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Horse and jockey passing by soul in torment

The Maltese countryside is full of small monuments of religious significance, betraying the strong influence of religion on popular culture.  These monuments range from wayside chapels to crosses and niches.  They either commemorate an event or, as is more likely, would have been placed there by an individual as a sign of thanks for prayers heard.

Every so often one also encounters stone columns on top of which the sculpted nude upper-torso of a person who is engulfed by flames features prominently.  The display offers a grim reminder to believers that the flames of purgatory are a reality which an impure soul has to pass through in order to be purged or cleansed in preparation for an eternity in paradise.  They are not to be confused with the more sinister flames of hell from which there is no hope of redemption or salvation.

These columns usually feature a small inscription on a marble plaque exhorting passers by to utter a few prayers for the needs of these souls.  It is also possible to utter such prayers for one’s own eventual needs with some of the plaques actually stating how many days of “indulgence” are gained by the individual if such prayers are made in front of the monument; a sort of offsetting arrangement to compensate for sins committed and to reduce the period one’s soul has to spend in purgatory for the necessary cleansing after death.

The picture accompanying this story also features another common Maltese countryside scene: that of a horse and its owner on a sulky calmly winding their way through a country lane in the outskirts of the village of Siggiewi in the early evening as the scorching sun starts losing a bit of its strength.  The man is looking at the monument and is most probably uttering the relevant prayers as guided by the marble plaque on the base.

An un-posed snapshot which I took on a Friday evening in June from my car as I waited for the road to widen a bit so that I would be able to overtake and which is as much at place in twenty first century rural Malta as it would have been a couple of hundred years ago.

The place where the boats have eyes

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The place where the boats have eyes

Maltese boats have eyes.

Not real ones of course, but small wooden ones carved or painted on both sides of their prows.  Eyes complete with blue pupils on a white eyeball and a thick black eyebrow.  Mostly found on fishing boats, particularly luzzu boats which are to be seen in huge concentrations in fishing ports and harbours such as Marsaxlokk.

Observe them bobbing on the water and they look like sage marine creatures nodding calmly at you from their berth. See them from one side and they look inanimate, but look at them head-on and they really start looking like faces!  Faces which actually look back at you in an almost sentient manner.

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Like most idiosyncratic features prevailing in an insular community, the eyes’ origins are steeped in mystery.  They are linked to luck and superstition: two very useful and powerful aids to fishermen plying their perilous trade, an activity which in spite of all the technological assistance provided by today’s meteorological services, remains fraught with risk and danger to this very day.  Luck and superstition which were in greater demand in years past when the chances of meeting a nasty end at sea were much greater owing to the unpredictability of the mare nostrum which has the uncanny ability to transform itself from the calmest of seas to a raging maelstrom in a matter of minutes irrespective of the season or time of year.

The most popularly accepted legend is that the eyes date back to Phoenician times, from around two thousand two hundred years ago, when those great seafarers and traders established a Central Mediterranean trading-post on Malta.  The Phoenicians in turn may have borrowed the eyes from the Egyptians who used a similar ocular symbol to represent protection, royal power and good health.

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Besides the romanticised legends, however, I have also come across one alternative explanation from an old salt who spent most of his life aboard the eyed-boats of Malta.  According to this explanation, the eyes have a more practical use which is more down to earth than the legends linking them to ancient superstitions.  For this man claims that the primary function of the eyes is to scare-off and intimidate great-white sharks contemplating surfacing beneath the boat to overturn it!  According to this particular explanation, nothing scares a lumbering great-white more than a pair of eyes peering hypnotically and nonchalantly at it from above!

Superstition or shark repellent?  Both alternative explanations have their individual charm.  A charm as strong as that of the bobbing luzzu and their staring eyes!