Cyprus Carobs – Dating back in history
Cyprus Carobs trees (Ceratonia siliqua) have been grown in Cyprus and countries bordering the Mediterranean since biblical times. It is said that they were the main source of food for St. John the Baptist during his forty days in the wilderness, and to this day they are sometimes called St. John’s Bread. It was under a carob tree near Salamis in Cyprus, that the body of St. Barnabas, Patron Saint of the Church in Cyprus was found in AD 477.
This has always been very important to the people of Cyprus, and many Cypriots who were sick would visit the site to drink the holy water from the nearby well. Sadly, this is no longer possible, as Salamis is in the part of the island which has been illegally occupied by Turkish troops since 1974.
In early times the carob was a popular food both for man and beast. The small even-sized seeds found inside the dark brown pods are identical in weight and were used by merchants in olden times to weigh gold. The word “carat” is actually derived from the Greek word (Kεράτιον), which was used to refer to the carob pod.
There are several million carob trees in Cyprus owned by locals in different areas of Cyprus. The carob grows at altitudes of up to 800 metres and is commonly found growing . alongside ancient olive trees. The carob tree has a thick, dark coloured trunk and large fleshy leaves. The tree blossoms in early summer with its leaves developing into carob pods later on. The pods can vary in length from 10 to 25 cm and are initially bright green but gradually darken to a rich brown colour. Inside the pod there are usually between six and twelve hard seeds.
Until the early 1940s, the carob, known as “the black gold of Cyprus” was the most important crop on the island, but the development of the citrus plantations marked the decline in its importance. The main region for carob cultivation stretched from Kouklia, in the Palea Paphos area in the west, to Larnaca in the east, and across to Famagusta, also now in the area occupied illegally by Turkish troops.
Carobs also grow wild in most parts of the island. The trees thrive on rocky soil where not much else can grow, and provide valuable shade for animals, but not for humans according to a well known local saying which warns those who sleep under a carob tree will have bad dreams.
For rural families in particular, the revenue from the carob crop was especially important.
On the first day of the carob harvest (usually at the end of August /beginning of September) everyone would head to their trees to gather the crop. The sacks of carobs would then be sold to the village representative of the Cooperative or a private dealer, who would take them to the carob warehouses. Carobs are usually measured in sacks known as Kandari, each weighing about 180 kg. The principal use of the carob pod has always been for animal fodder, which is particularly good for cattle. The pods are usually ground into a coarse flour at the carob mill before export, but some is kept by local farmers to add extra nutrition to their animal feed for the winter months. The best of the carob pods were taken to be eaten raw, and would be sucked like a chocolate flavoured lollipop for a while and then gently bitten to release the sweet syrup inside. Local housewives traditionally made Teratsomelo (carob honey) and Koulourakia which is a sweet and sticky dish made by cooking macaroni slowly in the thick carob honey. It had a delicious taste and was a real treat especially for the children.
It is still eaten by villagers today, particularly during the Lenten Fast during the Holy Week.
The seeds inside the carob pod are very precious and are currently worth € 5125.00 EUR a ton. The seeds are used in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, and for making gum. Carob has also become popular in the European health food industry as an excellent chocolate substitute, something local children in Cyprus have known for generations.
Cyprus Carobs exports
During the old days Zygi, the little fishing port east of Limassol, was used to export carob. But then Limassol itself became the main exporting port which handled all of the carob export from the Larnaca region. The word “Zygi” means ‘carob weighing scales’, and the cape close by, which is called Cape Dolos, was often referred to by local residents as Cap Carobiere.
Further west, there were a number of smaller carob ports known as Paraskalas, including Pissouri and Evdhimou. The old carob stores close to the shore can still be seen in both places. Donkeys would slowly wind their way down to the coast from the hill villages carrying large woven panniers of carobs. Until a few years ago, the old wooden jetty at Evdhimou where the carobs were loaded onto the waiting ships still stretched out into the sea. A strong winter storm in 1990, swept the jetty away, and now only the wooden piles remain, just visible above the waves. Paphos harbour was also used for exports using the large carob warehouses situated in Ayios Pavlos.
The beautiful rose coloured carob wood is often used by local carpenters to make attractive furniture, and is much sought after by marquetry craftsmen. It is an extremely hard wood and was traditionally used to make farm tools and the sturdy hubs for wooden cartwheels. Carob wood burns very slowly with a distinctive aroma, much favoured by villagers to burn on their open fires in the winter months. Just before Christmas many families would prepare a good, steady fire using large carob logs, so that the traditional Hiromeri (pork soaked in red wine and coriander) can be hung at the side of the fireplace and gently smoked, ready for the family’s Christmas celebrations.
About eight miles inland from Evdhimou, lies the pretty village of Anoyira which has always been an important carob growing area. Every September the annual Pastelli festival is held in the village, when villagers and visitors alike join in the celebrations as another successful harvest is completed. Anoyira is well known for its Teratsomelo and Pastelli. During the festival, the heavy, sweet smell of carob fills the village air and everyone is given a piece of treacle-coloured Pastelli (carob toffee) to chew. Bottles of Teratsomelo can be bought at the festival or throughout the year from local supermarkets.
It has a delicious taste poured over creamy Greek yoghurt or spread thickly on a slice of crusty bread. The syrup can also be added to milk to make a delicious drink.
Pastelli is produced by boiling the carob pods in water in a Hartchi (a large copper pot) for many hours over an open fire.
When the syrup has thickened, the pods are removed and the syrup is poured into large wooden trays and left to cool. Once it is cold, the hard pastelli is then broken into more manageable pieces with a stout iron bar.
The large pieces of Pastelli, molten toffee, are then spun and stretched like wool being spun. Then after the toffee will turn into a skein of burnished copper ready to be used.