Cypriot carob growers harvest their ‘black gold’

Asgáta (Cyprus) (AFP) – Christos Charalambous may be 79, but he is several meters above sea level on a carob tree, harvesting a fruit known as ‘black gold’ on the island of Cyprus as his grandson works below .

For some, carob has long been relegated to a less appealing substitute for chocolate.

But in Cyprus, its thick brown pods are also eaten raw or crushed to make sweet syrups, spreads, caramels, drinks and as a sweetener, while its seeds have industrial uses.

“It’s one of the fruits that you use entirely,” Charalambous said from his field in Asgata.

The branches rustle and sway as he and his grandson, Theophanis Christou, 20, loosen the seed pods with long sticks, raining carobs onto the ground.

The pair have been working for about three weeks in the late summer heat, harvesting about three tonnes of carob in early September.

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Christou, a student in maritime transport and finance, wishes to participate in the work of his grandfather.

It’s “hard to do,” Christou said, but it’s “work that can keep the family together.”

‘Additional income’

In the nearby coastal village of Zygi, individual growers bring bulging bags of pods to a carob mill.

Zygi “started as a village of carob trees” and its name refers to the scale used for the fruit, said community representative Christos Konstantinou.

At Zygi and elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean island, where the carob tree is native, disused or repurposed carob facilities recall the heyday of the industry in the last century.

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“Carob is known as the black gold of Cyprus because many farmers used to have carob…it was the main occupation of the villagers,” said Stavros Glafkou Charalambous, of Cooperative Carob MarketingFederation.

The federation, which runs the Zygi mill and other facilities, said it worked with around 1,500 to 2,000 small-scale growers, most of them harvesting carob for “additional income”.

George Pattichis, 75, from Vavla, said he had been coming to the Zygi factory for more than half a century.

The former forester said some of his carob trees were planted by his grandfather.

“I’m the last generation – my kids have other jobs,” Pattichis said.

“On the Rise Again”

In 2019, when the producer price was around 35 euro cents (now 34 US cents) per kilogram, carob accounted for less than 1.5% of the value of agricultural production in the Republic of Cyprus, according to statistics provided by the Ministry of Agriculture.

This year, carob growers told AFP that the price was approaching 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 Choirokoitia.

Sacks of harvested carob were stacked near his house, ready for the mill, although he said he would also save some for animal feed.

Global demand for locust bean gum (LBG) from the seeds – used as a food thickening agent – is driving up the price of carob, said Marios Kyriacou of the Cyprus Agricultural Research Institute.

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Cypriot exports of carob pods and seeds amounted to nearly eight million euros last year, according to official statistics. Egypt was the largest consumer of pods suitable for human consumption and Italy of seeds.

Cyprus was ranked the world’s third-largest producer of carob in the 1960s, Agriculture Minister Costas Kadis told AFP.

Production then went down, he said, “but now it’s going up again.”

‘drought resistant’

Carob “is very important for Cyprus because it needs little insecticides, fertilizers and water – and that is important when talking about climate change,” the minister said.

In late 2017, a University of Cyprus project planted nearly 5,000 carob tree seedlings and then donated around 28,500 more to interested farmers, project scientist Chrysi Tomouzou told AFP.

Researcher Kyriacou said carob is “a very drought-resistant tree species” that has been used as a crop in Cyprus “for at least 3,000 years”.

“The carob pod is rich in sugars” and dietary fiber, says Kyriacou. It also contains a “rare type of sugar alcohol” that is “recognized as an anti-diabetic agent,” he said, noting that it was “of interest for future clinical research.”

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Kyriacou and his team studied genetic and other variations in Cypriot carob.

They say their work could be crucial if Cyprus decides to increase production and processing.

But for now, the two often remain a small-scale affair.

At a festival in Anogyra, where stalls sold everything from carob sweets to ice cream, Andreas Andreou of Polyxenis Carob Products said carob syrup was the most popular product from his family business.

Despoula Georgiou, 61, showed how to make pasteli, a kind of carob caramel that her village is known for.

It’s “only (made with) carob juice, no sugar at all,” she said.

“I’ve been doing it for 50 years,” she said. “I learned it from my mother and my aunt.”

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