carobAm I the only one who get anxious about seeds germinating? It’s just that I’ve had some carob seeds in a drawer for over a year, now, and I’m too afraid to sow them in case they don’t grow. They were gifted to me by a complete stranger from the North Island who kindly posted them after I saw an article she’d written in the Organic New Zealand magazine in which she offered them to anyone who wrote to her. I was reminded of them during a recent stay in Greece where carob trees grow almost like weeds. I sampled their pods while I was there and found them utterly delicious.

And I’m not the only one to have enjoyed their chocolaty, sweetness. John the Baptist almost certainly dined on carob pods during his period of self-enforced austerity in the wilderness. According to the Bible, he survived by eating ‘locusts and wild honey’ but it’s much more likely the ‘locusts’ (another name for the trees) were carob pods and not insects.

A member of the pulse family (to which lentils, peas and beans also belong) the carob (Ceratonia siliqua) is native to Mediterranean regions but can also be cultivated in other warm climates. This makes it a goer in northern parts of New Zealand but rather quashes any hopes of it producing pods in my southern part of the country. Of course, I could always grow a carob in a pot and move it indoors for the winter or, better still, bonsai it and keep it on my window ledge as a reminder of my stays in Greece.

If you do live in a warmer region, I would seriously consider growing carobs. As well as being trees that enjoy well-drained or clay soils, they are good for erosion control and shelter, are completely drought tolerant, fare well in exposed places, and are nitrogen fixers, to boot. Slightly frost tender, it pays to give them some protection, especially while they are becoming established. Patience is also required as, if you are growing from seed, carobs will take 9-15 years to fruit.

While I have had no experience of harvesting carob pods (which deliver up the goods in late summer) in New Zealand, in Greece the way it is done is by laying a large tarpaulin under the trees and simply waiting for the pods to drop – which they seem to do most readily after a good shaking by hand or by the wind. Bear in mind that if you pick the fruit too early there is a nasty astringency to its flesh). If you want to store the pods, leave them in the sun to bake until they are well dried, pop them into sacks, keep them away from rodents and insects, and they will remain good for up to a year. The seeds can be milled.

If you are a keeper of goats, sheep or horses, carob pods make an ideal supplementary food. The pods contain roughly 55% sugar. 10% protein, and 6% fat. In Greece, I have seen, first hand, flocks of goats simply dashing to get at feed troughs filled with carob pods.

A travelaholic, I’m currently in Penang and, just this morning, while poking around a Chinese catering supplier, I encountered carob once again. This time it featured as the filling of one of my favourite sweets – moon cakes. The centres of these special treats are filled with an assortment of locust (carob) bean paste. It seems I can’t get away from these extraordinary trees so I really will sow those seeds once I get back home.

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