The designation ‘carob’ is used for various tree species belonging to the genus Prosopis. Within this category are Prosopis alba and Prosopis chilensis (both called White Carob), Prosopis flexuosa (Sweet Carob) and Prosopis negra (Black Carob). In Argentina they are found in the north west of the central regions, while in Chile it is encountered in particular in the Atacama desert area.
The name carob derives from the Arabic word kharoub, meaning pod. The Spanish conquistadors then gave the name to these trees due to the similarity they saw between the American species and Ceratonia siliqua (the Mediterranean species). For American peoples it has similar symbology: in the Quechua language it is called Takku with the same meaning and for the Guaraní it is Ibopé, “Tree created to feed us”. This names indicate the importance the tree had, and still has, for native peoples and criollo farmers.
The white carob is a tree of medium size, 5-15 meters high and 1 meter in diameter, though it is rare to find trees of large size (due to them being felled). The trunk is short and the foliage is spherical, with a diameter up to 10 m. The bark is thin, dark grey in color, with abundant veining and tannic properties. Its dense, hard to work wood (density = 0.76), is used to produce doors and flooring, parts of shoes, and wine casks, because it has a good response to drying and retains dimensional stability without swelling due to moisture. The flower is small, white tending to green or yellow in color, and hermaphrodite. Pollination can be entomophilous or anemophilous, it is crossed and the female reproductive organs activate before the male. Its fruit is a pod, about 20 cm long, with dark seeds about 7 mm in diameter. The tree has good tolerance to drought, saline conditions and sand. Extremely efficient in its use of water, it produces most of its fruit in dry years and has therefore been successfully introduced to arid regions. It does not tolerate frosts.
Carob flour is obtained by grinding the yellowish fruit (pods commonly called carobs), which have a fleshy pulp (often called patay) mainly composed of sugars (between half and three quarters of the weight of a pod is sugar), giving it a pleasant flavor. The capsules containing the seeds are brown. The pods are a very important food, rich in fiber and calories. Consumed whole they are a high quality feed for animals, and processed into flour they are a product with great culinary potential (moist or dry bread making, beverages—when fermented it produces an alcoholic drink, garnish for pastries).
Consumption of this flour is a cultural tradition for the original peoples of the Cahqueña Region. It is a symbolic species of the area, also called Chaqueña Plain, one of the Argentine regions composing the South American ecoregion of Gran Chaco. Its borders are the River Pilcomayo to the north, the River Paraguay and River Paraná to the east, the River Salado to the south and the North East Region to the east. The area of production includes the provinces of Formosa and Chaco, the northern part of the province of Santa Fe, most of the province of Santiago del Estero and the eastern area of the province of Salta.
Harvesting Prosopis alba carobs and making flour is particularly linked to the community in the Ibarreta area, in the Province of Formosa. White carob is a part of the daily life of these groups of small rural producers and the flour is a staple of their traditional diet through its use in many dishes.
Image: Slow Food Archive