In the Algarve and Lower Alentejo region, carob trees are an all-too-familiar sight. Unfamiliar to many, this tree thrives in only a few areas of the planet.
However, its fruit – the pod which in Portuguese is called ‘alfarroba’ – has become increasingly popular. Known as the Algarve’s “dark gold”, its name comes from the Arab word kharrb (meaning “locust bean pod”), with the tree brought to Portugal during the Moorish occupation.
While this evergreen tree is slow to grow, it can reach up to 15-20 metres tall. It is also extremely resilient in droughts and its lifespan can range from two to three centuries.
The Algarve is home to four varieties: mulata (the most common), de burro, canela and galhosa. Between August and October, workingmen are often found in the fields swatting the tree branches so the fruit will fall to the ground to later be collected by hand.
But why has the carob won over so many hearts in recent times, to the point where Portugal has become one of its three biggest producers in the world? This misshaped pod is rich in calcium, fibre and protein but, above all, it has the best of both worlds: a sweet taste with high sugar content but low calorie content.
It is not surprising that the carob has turned into a popular substitute for chocolate as a sweetener in a vast array of confectionary treats and drinks. While they can be eaten raw, the pods and beans can also be ground into a type of flour, which is known for being a healthy and gluten-free alternative to chocolate.
Carob flour contains magnesium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, barium, copper, nickel and vitamins A, B, B2, B3 and D.
One fascinating fact associated with carob seeds comes from their uniformity in size and weight, which led the Romans to use them as a measurement standard for assessing the purity of gold. The same way we refer to pure gold as 24 carats, a Roman gold coin equalled the weight of 24 carob seeds.
Today, they can be used to extract starch and are found in multiple industrial applications as thickeners, stabilisers and emulsifiers (in the food sector and in animal feed), but also in several industrial biological products, chemicals, in the pharmaceutical industry (such as laxatives, capsules, toothpastes) and cosmetics.
The University of the Algarve has even developed a study using a technology capable of converting sugar from the pulp into biofuel.
Despite its multiple uses, the most popular in Portugal is as cattle feed. However, the potential of this Algarve staple did not go unnoticed by a Portuguese émigré who, upon returning home, decided to invest in this local product. And so, in April 2018, Carob World was born. The company has been winning over the Portuguese market with several gourmet products made from the beans, such as two savoury spreads and carob bars with almond or milk.
These products have surprised both the national and international markets for their intense flavours, which are very similar to chocolate but much lower in calories. For now, their goal is to introduce this ingredient to the world and globalise their products.
“We want to export all over the world. At the fairs we participate in, we have to explain that our products are not made from chocolate which immediately catches people’s attention,” explains Ana Paula Appel, the brand’s marketing director. “The history of carob is fascinating, as well as its production process and the many health benefits. All this makes people curious and they want to try the product. They love the intense flavour.”
The Algarve people have always known how to best work with this product. In the region’s most traditional restaurants, it is very common for dessert menus to feature delights like the almond and carob tart, carob Swiss roll, delícia de alfarroba and as a digestif, such as carob liqueur.
Even at the beach, during summer, the popular bolas de Berlim (Portuguese donuts) sellers now have carob varieties. Additionally, most bakeries have carob bread, and there are even carob beers that have made it to the market.
This ingredient is now more desirable than ever and has even acquired gourmet status in Portuguese gastronomy.
By SARA ALVES