The carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua) is a species of flowering evergreen tree in the pea family, very common in Cretan flora. Crete is believed to host the largest natural grove with carob trees in Europe, namely the carob grove of Tris Ekklisies. The carob tree can be met everywhere, even on the sidewalks, because of the dense shade and the zero care it needs. Its name (ceratonia) means horn in Greek and is taken after the shape of its edible seed pods.
A carob tree can reach a height of 18m and the age of 100 years, while its leaves are round, hard, dense and frost- tolerant. It grows in the arid and rocky coastal areas of the island at an average distance from each other. The fruit is a pod that can be elongated, compressed, straight or curved, and thickened at the sutures. The pods take a full year to develop and ripen (are classified as legumes). The ripe pods eventually fall to the ground and are eaten by various mammals, thereby dispersing the seed. Likewise, carob consumed by humans is actually the dried (and sometimes roasted) pod, and not the 'nuts' or seeds.
In the past, Cretans ate carob beans as a sweet, while they still remain a healthy substitute for chocolate. In times of poverty, the carob trees of Crete fed the poor and the rebels who were in the mountains. Each pod contains 5-15 tiny hard seeds, the carobs, which all have similar weight (189 to 205 milligrams). For this reason the weight of these seeds, was firstly used before 1500 years ago to define the carat (0.2 grams), ie the unit of measurement of weight for precious stones.
Especially, in the past, all coastal areas of Crete produced carobs, which were exported all over the world, but today the cultivation has declined dramatically. Carobs are widely used as fodder. Moreover, carob flour is used for manufacture nutrient flour, suitable for baby and infant gastroenteritis and abdominal pains. Continuing, by boiling the beans, some people produce a simple aqueous extract, the carob honey, which is then used as a sweetener. Some other bake carobs, grind them and mix the powder with some flour for bread making. In folk medicine, a beverage is produced from crushed beans against children suffering from bronchitis or whooping cough, while others boil carobs with dried figs and raisins against cough. Also, the sticky substance of pods (gum) is useful in paper and food industry (as fixative). Finally, the seed of the carob tree is sometimes used as replacement of coffee beans, roasted with almonds and chickpeas, while its wood used in wooden decors.
The carob tree was known to the Greeks, who cultivated it for its fruits. Pliny describes the carob bean as fodder for pigs. Theophrastus mentioned that the fruit was called Egyptian fig and described correctly that the beans come directly out of the trunk, and indeed the flowers always grow in the armpits of the leaves or directly from the branches. Carob was eaten in ancient Egypt, was a common sweetener and was used in the hieroglyph for "sweet" (nedjem). Dried carob fruit is traditionally eaten on the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat and carob juice drinks are traditionally drunk during the Islamic month of Ramadan. In Malta a syrup (ġulepp tal-ħarrub) is made out of carob pods, being a traditional medicine for coughs and sore throat. Compotes and liqueurs are made from carob in Turkey, Malta, Portugal, Spain and Sicily.