Banjo the carob bear. Photo: Supplied
It was an Easter holiday to the mid-north coast. I was eight years old and fishing in a tinny with mum and dad. Inside a bait esky was a haul of chocolate rabbits, candy-filled humpty dumpties and mini-eggs from that morning's treasure hunt. There was also a carob frog mum had brought along for a giggle.
"Try some," she said. "It's like chocolate, but healthy. You might like it."
She knew full well I would hate it.
Carob is a legume. Photo: Supplied
The bitterness wriggled down my throat like a demon tadpole and immediately I was over the side adding to the old-man's burly. I would never eat carob again.
"[The] carob from the '70s and the '80s we got at our school canteens was all made from imported carob powder," says Sophie Richards, of South Australian company The Carob Kitchen. "It was often under-roasted and blended with old palm oil and bad fats."
Little wonder it tasted like death and made a whole generation despise it. However, a quick scan of independent grocers and restaurants suggests that carob is making a small comeback – celebrating carob's unique flavour, rather than using it as a chocolate substitute.
Carob is often compared to chocolate. Photo: Quentin Jones
Mestizo restaurant in Melbourne's Ivanhoe has a pisco sour on the cocktail menu that includes algarrobina (a Peruvian black carob syrup). Chef Paul West grated half a fresh carob pod over the insides of roast quinces on River Cottage Australia last season. It's also been spotted at Bayte in Collingwood spread on charred flatbread with tahini like a sort of Lebanese Vegemite on toast.
The Carob Kitchen entered the market with a basic range of products such as raw carob powder and "Kibble Nibbles" in 2011. "I thought the carob powder was so good we've got to be able to do more with it," says Richards, who worked for 12 months on a little carob bear named Banjo and a range of milk bars. The goal was to produce something that tasted good without adding sugar.
"We were targeting Banjo towards kids as a healthy Freddo alternative but when we launched it was the adults who started snapping him up, not the kids."
So what is carob exactly? Plant? Animal product? Partially gelatinated non-dairy gum-based product?
Like soy sausages and margarine, it's a food often defined by what it's not (chocolate) rather than what it is. Carob is a legume (sorry, paleo dieters) that grows on trees. Pods from the carob tree are ground up and made into a powder for choc-a-phobes.
"The interesting thing about carob is that there's not just one variety - just like apples and grapes," says Richards, whose family's carob orchard has 3500 trees of seven different varieties with differing sweetness and flavours. Another South Australian company, The Australian Carob Co, also grows more than 6000 carob trees on their property in Booborowie, near Burra.
As well as containing no caffeine, carob is also high in a number of essential nutrients and minerals.
David Strugar of Bondi's Health Emporium in Sydney confirms carob sales are on the rise. "It doesn't have the caffeine element that raw cacao has so it appeals to people trying to avoid stimulants at night and parents who don't want to give caffeine to their kids," he says.
But his business has had less success with carob beans. "They're probably still a bit too obscure," Strugar says.
Taryn Spray from Organic Wholefoods in Melbourne's Brunswick reports that Banjo sales have been strong. "He's really cute. The carob tastes good and the texture is really milky."
With this knowledge I figured it was time to try carob again. My palate had changed since I was eight years old. Maybe I was too rough on the stuff initially? I never liked brussels sprouts as a kid and I now look forward to sprout season with the same anticipation I used to have for a new series of MacGyver.
I purchased a "gluten-free carob and buckwheat crispbread" made by Naturally Good. Eating around the HardiePlank crispbread, the carob still tasted every bit as rancid as it did on that fateful fishing trip to the Manning River.
Dang. Maybe the bear responsible for stealing the hearts of health nuts would taste better? It did. The texture is indeed milky and unlike the crispbread I could finish all three bites. Not a taste for everyone but completely edible.
It still tasted nothing like chocolate. Herein lies the biggest hurdle carob needs to overcome if it is to become more popular: to be seen and tasted in its own right, not as a Cadbury substitute. Soy sausages are kind of OK when not compared to the real thing and brown rice is fine if you don't do a side-by-side analysis with grains of the fragrant jasmine variety. The same does not apply to margarine, which I wouldn't even put on my cat's paws.
Maybe it's time to give carob another chance. There are enough products on the market from domestic orchards that you can easily dodge the bullet of lesser-quality imported carob. Just don't compare it to chocolate.