Theophanes Christo, 20, and his grandfather Christos Charalambos, 79 (above the tree) harvest carob from a tree in the village of Asgata, southern Cyprus
ASGATA (Cyprus) (AFP) – Christos Charalambos may be 79 years old but is several meters from a carob tree, harvesting a fruit called “black gold” on the island of Cyprus where his grandson works below. For some, carob has long been relegated to the niche of a less appealing alternative to chocolate.
But in Cyprus, its thick brown pods are eaten raw or ground to make a sweet syrup, spreadable cheese, cereal, drinks and as a sweetener, while its seeds have industrial uses.
“It is one of the fruits you consume completely,” Charalambous said from his field in Asgata.
The branches sway and sway as he and his grandson, Theophanes Christo, 20, hit the pods with long sticks, causing rain to fall to the ground.
Machines at a carob mill in the coastal town of Zighy, southern Cyprus
The pair had been working for about three weeks in the hot late summer, amassing about three tons of carob by early September.
Christo, a shipping and finance student, is eager to join his grandfather’s business.
It’s “difficult to do,” Christo said, but it is “the work that can keep the family together.”
– ‘Additional income’ –
In the nearby coastal village of Zygi, individual farmers bring puffed-up bags of pods to a carob mill.
Community representative Christos Constantinou said that Zygi “started as a carob village” and its name refers to the weight scale used for the fruit.
For some, carob has an impeccable reputation as an alternative to chocolate
In Zygi and elsewhere across the eastern Mediterranean island where the carob tree is home, abandoned or reused carob facilities are a reminder of the boom in industry in the last century.
“Carob was known as the black gold of Cyprus because many farmers used to get carob… It was the main occupation of the villagers,” said Stavros Glafko Charalambos, of the Carob Marketing Cooperative Federation.
The union, which operates the Zygi mill and other facilities, said it works with about 1,500-2,000 small-scale producers, most of whom harvest carob for “extra income.”
George Bateches, 75, of Wavla, said he’s been coming to the Zygi factory for more than half a century.
The former forester said his grandfather planted some of his own carob trees.
“I’m the last generation – my kids have other jobs,” said Patisches.
– ‘Boost again’ –
In 2019, when the price of farmers was about 35 euro cents (now 34 US cents) per kilogram, carob represented less than 1.5 percent of the value of crop production in the Republic of Cyprus, according to statistics provided by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Carob farmers told AFP this year that the price was close to one euro per kilogram (2.2 pounds).
“I will sell to whoever offers me the best price,” said Anastasis Daniel, 65, in the village of Chirokotia.
Bags of carob were piled up in his house in preparation for the mill, though he said he would keep some for animal feed as well.
The thick brown pods of carob trees can be eaten raw or ground to make a sweet syrup, coffee spread, cereal, and beverage.
Global demand for locust seed gum (LBG) – which is used as a food thickening agent – is driving the price of carob, said Marius Kyriakou of the Agricultural Research Institute in Cyprus.
According to official statistics, the value of Cypriot carob seed exports amounted to eight million euros last year. Egypt was the largest consumer of edible pods and Italy of the seeds.
Agriculture Minister Costas Kadis told AFP that Cyprus was ranked as the world’s third largest producer of carob in the 1960s.
Production declined after that, he said, “but now it is increasing again.”
The minister said that carob “is very important for Cyprus because it needs less pesticides, fertilizers and water – and this is important when we talk about climate change”.
Project scientist Chrissy Tomozo told AFP that in late 2017, a project of the University of Cyprus planted nearly 5,000 carob seedlings and then provided about 28,500 to interested farmers.
Researcher Kyriakou said the carob was a “very drought-tolerant tree species” that had been used as a crop in Cyprus “for at least 3,000 years”.
A woman demonstrates how to make pastille, a type of carob candy
“The carob pod is rich in sugars” and dietary fiber, Kiriakou said. It also contains a “rare type of sugar alcohol” that is “known to be an antidiabetic agent,” he said, noting that this is “important for further clinical research.”
Kyriakou and his team have been studying the genetic and other variations of Cypriot carob.
They say their work could be crucial if Cyprus decides to ramp up production and processing.
But for now, both often remain a small affair.
At a festival in Anogera, where stalls sold everything from carob sweets to ice cream, Andreas Andrew of Polyxenis Carob Products said carob syrup was the best-known product of his family business.
Despolla Giorgio, 61, showed how to make pastille – a type of carob dessert for which her village is famous.
It was “made with only carob juice, no sugar at all,” she said.
“I’ve been doing this for 50 years,” she said. “I learned it from my mother and aunt.”