In the Algarve, from August until late September, cold hard cash is literally falling on the floor when the wind blows, in the form of the humble ‘Alfarroba’ or carob from the ‘Alfarrobeiras’, or carob trees.
Now, I’m not saying it’s 24 carat gold, however, interestingly, if it wasn’t for the carob there would be no such thing as carats. That’s where the name came from. You see, carob seeds were all thought to weigh exactly the same, so they were thought to be the perfect thing to put on the other side of the scale used to measure the weight of gold. In fact, a Roman coin called the “Solidus” weighed exactly the same as 24 carob seeds, and as a result it soon became the measurement of the purity of the gold as well.
Now, it was only our imaginations that determined what side of the scales were the most valuable. I mean who says 24 carob seeds are less valuable than 24 carats of gold? But I suppose we like shiny stuff, and what the hell else were we going to do with gold but hoard it? Carobs on the other hand are quite useful. That’s why everybody is out there picking them.
And they are. There’s a whole lot of trees and a whole lot of work. First they have to get to them. And that’s not always easy to do, neither is the getaway for that matter. Some wild rides through the fields on tractors, and I’m sure you’ve seen someone riding, rather precariously, down the street balancing a large bag of alfarrobas on their bicycle as they try to make their way to the nearest vendor.
When they get to the tree they cover the ground around it with a blanket, and then somebody shakes the trees, usually using a specialised long pole (also known as a stick of bamboo), and somebody else picks up the fallen carobs. It sounds quite idyllic, doesn’t it? However, my source who was working as an alfarroba picker this summer told me (when I was looking for an inside scoop on what it’s like to be a professional picker) that: “Nobody ever tells you about the prickles”. So, I’m telling you now. There are lots of prickles.
But what are they useful for? I did wonder myself as they say rather vaguely that they are used to make chocolate. But they pick a LOT! And I don’t see that much alfarroba chocolate around, do you? The main answer is animal feed. Which is actually what the tree is hoping for. Before we came along with our wild new fangled ideas, like making alfarroba flavoured ice cream (more on that later), the trees were hoping some other mammal, like a wild boar, will come along and eat the sweet pods on the ground, and then shall we say ‘plant’ the hard inner seeds, now wrapped in their natural fertilizer, somewhere else. Preferably somewhere with some sunshine, rain, and a good view.
But back to our own ideas. The other main use of alfarrobas is flour which is made by toasting and then grinding the seed pods. It can then be used as a healthy alternative to cocoa powder. A popular choice as it’s lower in fat and higher in natural sugars, as well as being an excellent source of iron, calcium, protein, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamins A and B, and not to mention being naturally high in fibre. It really gives chocolate a run for its money. The Portuguese use it to make all manner of delicious cakes, like the classic ‘Bolo de Alfarroba’ (alfarroba cake), but also the ‘Torta de Alfarroba’ (a tart or cake roll) and many kinds of biscuits. But of course they don’t stop there. They mix up these creations by adding to them the other delicious things growing on the trees nearby (which are clearly born to be together) like figs, almonds and oranges. They also make a traditional liquor, and, as I alluded to earlier, I even tried a quite delicious scoop of alfarroba flavoured ice cream recently. What will they think of next?
Another interesting little quirk about alfarrobas is that when you come to sell them you don’t sell them, like everything else, by the kilo. You sell alfarrobas by the ‘Arroba’. An arroba is equal to 15 kilos.
Prices fluctuate every year and it’s not unknown for people to try to sneak a rock or two into their bags. It’s a cat and mouse game against the equally shrewd buyers who normally insist that you subtract for the weight of the bag. Subtract and add a rock or two and it should work out fair enough.
They take at least 7 years to start to produce the alfarroba beans (that look a lot like peas in a pod) but once they start they can go on for a few centuries. Apparently there’s even one in Tavira that is an impressive 600 years old. Imagine picking the alfarrobas from the same tree as your ancestors. Talk about your great great great (and however many other greats) grandmother’s exact recipe for carob cake being passed down perfectly through the generations.
The pods themselves take a whole year to ripen (grow and then turn from green to black), and it’s quite interesting to see that even now, when people have only just finished picking this year’s batch, you can already hear the bees buzzing around fertilizing the tiny new flowers that will begin the process all over again.
Now, I don’t want to make anybody nervous, but as they get older they have become nicknamed ‘Viuveiras’ or ‘Widow Makers’, as their older branches have a tendency to fall down without notice. Not sure how true this is, they seem pretty sturdy to me. But rumour has it. So maybe keep an eye out on your next picnic!
Not many people know the alfarroba tree when they first arrive here but they are widespread and a true symbol of the Algarve. My alfarroba picking source even told me that they are “oxygen bombs”, and provide an abundance of air for us to breathe. I’m not sure how she knows this, yet I’m inclined to believe her.
So there you go. These marvellous mascots of life here in the Algarve not only give us money, but also provide us with a far more precious commodity - the air we breathe. No wonder people describe coming to the Algarve as being like “a breath of fresh air”. It is.