From time to time, I like to mix a reflection or two in among my Greek food recipes. Today’s topic is one that really tickles my fancy. As far as spices go, there is surely none more unique or rarer than the mastic resin from the Greek island of Chios, reputed birthplace of the poet Homer.
Mastic (or ‘masticha’ as we say in Greek, pronounced “mahs-TEE-ha”) is a resin produced by an evergreen shrub, Pistacia lentiscus, which is related to the pistachio tree. The word 'mastic' is derived from the ancient Greek verb ‘mastikhein’ which means “to chew”. The English word “masticate” (to chew) is derived from this root as well.
While the mastic shrub, also known as skhinos in Greek or lentisk in English, does grow elsewhere in the Mediterranean region, the mastic spice resin is only produced in the plots of the Mastic-Villages or Mastichochoria (Μαστιχοχώρια) in the southern end of Chios. It is believed that undersea volcanoes in this area of the Aegean Sea affect the local climate and account for the unique “crying” of the lentisk trees on Chios, from which the mastic “tears” are harvested. It should be noted that the Chian mastic trees also grow in a red soil that is peculiar to the island and is also thought to be the result of volcanic activity. Mastic production has been the primary concern and monopoly of the Mastichochoria for at least 2,400 years and likely much longer. One 17th Century chronicler had this to say about the Mastic harvest on Chios:
There are above 30 Villages upon the Island, which are inhabited, most by Greeks; those who belong to the Mastick villages, to the South-ward have their hair long. The time for gathering the Mastick is in August and September. The Customer goes out to the Village where they receive him with musick, and feasting. What Mastick is gathered is all delivered to the Customer, for the Grand Signiors use, and he soon dispatches it up to Constantinople to serve in the Seraglio for several uses. What remains of the Grand Signiors store, the Customer sells to merchants. It is very dangerous for the inhabitants to keep any Mastick by them...Mastic resin is the original chewing gum. Recently, I watched an episode of The Hour, with host George Stroumboulopoulos, in which it was stated that chewing gum was invented in Mexico. Nothing could be further from the truth. The earliest mention of mastic resin used for chewing is found in a fragment of an ancient Greek Comedy dating back to the 5th Century B.C.
When any company of women meet in Turkey, some Mastick is brought them on a server, and each taking a little, they are chewing and spitting most of the time. It is comical to see the old women roale it about their gumms; the effect which they find by it are that it carries away the flegme, cleanses and prevents the aking of the teeth; and causes a sweet breath.
The ancient Greeks chewed mastic for fresh breath and to clean their teeth, a practice that was picked up by the Romans and Byzantine Greeks, along with later medieval Europeans including the Venetians, Genoese, and the Ottoman Turks in their turn. Mastic was also reputed to have a salutary effect on gum disease, stomach distempers and other gastrointestinal ailments, and was thus considered a medicine by ancient medical practitioners; evidence for this can be found in the writings of Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Galen. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the island of Chios was a much sought after commercial prize by occupiers from both East and West. After the Romans came the Byzantines, after them the Venetians, then the Genoese, and after them came the Ottoman Turks; and finally, a return to full Greek control again in 1923. Yet, the importance of the mastic harvest was such that, even under Ottoman rule, the Mastic-Villages were allowed a form of self-government under their own parliament. Today, mastic cultivation, harvest and production continue on the island of Chios pretty much unchanged in practice and tools since antiquity. Some 2 million mastic trees are cultivated and harvested by members of the Mastic Producer’s Association of Chios, which is comprised of some 5,000 persons from the 24 Mastichochoria.
The manner in which mastic is harvested is as unique as the resin itself. The “kendos” (mastic harvest) begins in June and continues through to September. It is a very labour intensive process and is done completely by hand. The ground beneath each mastic tree is scrupulously cleared and a layer of fine white clay sand is spread about the base of the shrubs. A series of arch-shaped incisions are made in the trunk and larger branches of the trees with a special tool known as a “kentitiri”. The mastic resin seeps forth from these incisions and coagulates into crystallized resin “tears” which drop (or are scraped) onto the surface of the white sand below. It is then harvested via a sifting process, cleaned, and selected according to grades. The grades of mastic resin quality are based on levels of purity and are divided into 5 grades. The highest quality mastic is the purest form of the resin and is considered Quality 1, whereas Qualities 3 – 5 can contain small pieces of the tree’s bark, leaves, or other detritus.
The ancient Greeks also produced a mastic oil, and the mastic resin was further used to flavour wines, a practice which survives today in the form of Mastikha spirit. Here in Ontario, a mastic liqueur is available in select L.C.B.O. stores under the brand name Skinos and it is imported by the Kolonaki Group Inc. The traditional mastic based spirit is known on Chios as Mastikhato, though it is usually referred to simply as Mastikha.
Today, mastic resin is widely used in culinary, medicinal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical applications the world over. Modern researchers have found that mastic resin aids in the healing of peptic ulcers by killing Helicobacter pylori which can also cause gastritis and duodenitis. Furthermore, mastic oil contains perillyl alcohol, which has been found to be effective in both the prevention and treatment of some forms of cancer as it arrests tumor cell development. Mastic resin also effectively absorbs cholesterol thereby diminishing the chances of heart attacks and lowering high blood pressure.
In Greece, mastic resin can be found in numerous commercial and homemade products. It is used as flavouring for liquors, chewing gum, pastries and spoon sweets (along with other desserts), ice creams, in breads and in stews; it can also be found in toothpastes, cosmetics, lotions for skin and hair, soap, and perfumes. Mastic is also used in several Turkish recipes and preparations and remains quite a popular spice in neighbouring Turkey as well.
Finally, one of the most interesting historical associations relating to mastic and its production has to do with Christopher Columbus. The unique nature of mastic resin was one of Columbus’ reasons for undertaking his voyage of discovery. In his First Letter to Isabella I of Castile, Columbus enumerates the possibility of finding a new source of the mastic resin in the West as one of the reasons he believed his undertaking was something worthy of the Queen’s funding. Curiously, Columbus uses the Greek spelling of the name of the island i.e. Xios, where the unique resin was cultivated. This, along with a number of other interesting points has led some to conclude that Columbus was actually a Greek from Chios. Was Columbus of Greek origin? I don’t know. There are definitely some pretty curious facts among what little we actually do know regarding the man and his origins, but I have not come to any conclusions. If you want to read more on it, try Matt Barret’s brief discussion of the matter.
Try my Mastic Shrimp Saganaki recipe to enjoy the unique flavour of cooking with mastic gum.
If you are interested in obtaining high-quality pure mastic resin or any other mastic products, drop me an email: greekgourmand[at]gmail.com
Pánta Kalá (Always Be Well),
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.