Sweet mastic, the resin of the Pistacia lentiscus var. Chia (locally known as skinos), that only grows on the North Aegean island of Chios, and is used for flavouring everything from toothpaste to a tooth-jarringly sweet liqueur.
First mentioned by Herodotus, mastic put the chew in gum and the jelly in the beans that delighted bored Ottoman harems. Roman women used mastic toothpicks to sweeten their breath; Syrians put it in perfume. On Chios they traditionally use it to flavour a devilishly sweet liqueur, called Mastika, chewing gum and MasticDent toothpaste.
In the Middle Ages, when Chios was governed by the Republic of Genoa, mastic was prized by painters to varnish their masterpieces. The punishment for stealing up to 10 pounds of resin was the loss of an ear; for more than 200 pounds, the culprit was hanged.
The Ottoman Sultans loved Chíos, especially its sweet mastic, and they granted it more privileges than any other island, including a degree of autonomy. It became famous for its doctors and chess players; elsewhere in Greece, the cheerfulness of the Chiots was equated with foolishness. The cheerfulness came to an abrupt end in 1822.
Although the islanders had refused to join in the revolt against the Turks, a band of 2,000 ill-armed men from Samos disembarked on Chios, proclaimed independence and forced the locals to join the struggle. The Sultan, furious at this subversion of his favoured island, ordered his admiral Kara Ali to make an example of Chíos that the Greeks would never forget. In two weeks an estimated 30,000 people were slaughtered, and another 45,000 taken into slavery; the Sultan’s sweet tooth dictated that only the mastic villages survived.
The stone villages in the southern part of the island, near the mastic groves, were built with high exterior walls, with only a few entrances and labyrinthine layouts — to foil any attempts by invaders to steal the precious resin stored there. Several of the villages have houses and streets entirely covered in black and white patterns: they look like no other place in Europe.
The land must have some secret virtue as well, for mastic bushes refuse to be transplanted – even northern Chíos won’t do; they might grow, but not a drop of mastic will they yield.
The 300 tons of gum mastic produced annually in the 21 Mastikochoria support 5,000 families. In early July they spread calcium carbonate powder under the bushes, a few weeks before they 'needle' the bark for the first of three times. Resin rises to fill these wounds to protect the plant from insects and pathogens, and forms what look like diamond teardrops, which harden, then fall onto the carpet of calcium-carbonate, which prevents them from sticking to the ground. The ‘tears’ are then harvested, sifted, washed, scratched and dried. Some 90 per cent of the crop is exported, much of it to the Middle East.
In 2014,UNESCO included traditional mastic cultivation on its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In 2015 mastic was recognised as a natural medicine.
Ancient doctors considered mastic a panacea, good for everything from bladder ailments to snake bites. As a cream it reduces inflammation and heals wounds. Currently an Israeli pharmaceutical firm is holding trials to see whether mastic can relieve neurological or neuro-degenerative disorders.
Images by: Ailinaleixo, Creative Commons License, Kostisl, Public Domain, PD art