Carob-chip cookies with coconut and cranberries. Photo: Keith McDuffee / Wikipedia

At the turn of the century, Cypriot farmers were exporting 50,000 metric tons of carob a year, with the highly prized seed pods often described as Cyprus’ “black gold.” Such was the demand for Cypriot carob from Europe, the UK and Canada that income from the trees meant many rural families were able to put their children through school.

Now, more than six decades after carob cultivation virtually ceased in Cyprus, the Mediterranean island is reviving the ancient tradition, with hopes that new crops of black gold can aid its post-Covid-19 economic recovery.

Recently, Cypriot Agriculture Minister Costas Kadis announced that the government would introduce a series of measures from 2021 until 2027 to strengthen the cultivation of carob trees in Cyprus. Speaking from Limassol after visiting several companies involved in processing carob, Kadis said, “The government strongly supports carob cultivation, one of the traditional crops in our country.”

A comprehensive program being introduced next year would increase national efforts to protect carob trees in Cyprus, with the aim being to export its products at an international level more efficiently, Kadis said.

Carob is widely used as an organic substitute for cocoa and as a sweetening agent, and demand for it has skyrocketed. The global carob-powder market was valued at US$47.2 million in 2019, and is expected to rise to $69.8 million by 2027, as consumers shift toward healthier ingredients.

High in fiber, pectin and protein and fat-free, carob is used in food and beverages, cereals and dairy products, and in pharmaceuticals to reduce cholesterol and improve digestion.

As Cyprus battles to recover from the economic hit it has suffered from the global health crisis, the chance to increase production of carob and boost the island’s agricultural exports is serendipitous. Three years ago, the University of Cyprus launched a project in collaboration with the Agricultural Research Institute to plant 40,000 carob trees, capable of producing 10,000 metric tons of carob annually.

The aim was to produce carob food and drinks locally, and researchers from the university set up laboratory tests to develop new carob-based drinks or drugs based on its beneficial properties for digestion. So far, more than 5,000 trees have been planted and the project continues. The trees usually begin to bear fruit in their seventh year.

Carob has been cultivated in Cyprus since the 1st century AD and was one of the island’s major exports from the medieval era right up to the end of the British Mandate period.

Between 1900 and 1910, carob was a prized export, with production averaging 53,000 metric tons a year, making Cyprus the third-biggest exporter worldwide. But as Cyprus moved from an agriculture-based economy to a financial-services center, the country’s carob production dwindled. The latest data from 2012 put production at just over 9,000 metric tons.

Now, with the carob enjoying a revived interest, the Cypriot government is pinning its hopes on a significant comeback to lessen the economic blow of Covid-19.

While Cyprus has been relatively successful in handling the pandemic, the sectors it has relied on to maintain growth – tourism, real estate, and professional services to foreigners – have been badly hit by the global lockdown.

However, the success of the carob-production project has now shifted the focus to agricultural exports.

“Proof of the growing interest in carob cultivation is the fact that in the last three years there has been an increase of 15% in crops, which have all been officially registered by the Agriculture Ministry,” Kadis said.

Andrea Busfield

Andrea Busfield has been in journalism for more than 25 years, working as a reporter, features editor and copy editor for UK national newspapers, the chief civilian print editor of Sada-e Azadi in Kabul, and deputy editor of Gulf Times in Qatar. A published author, she now works as a freelance journalist based in Cyprus.