The evergreen mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus) is low, dense and ‘sculpted’ in form, with dark leathery leaves and a rough, corrugated bark from which it spontaneously weeps a pale yellow, largely odourless, resin or hardened sap. This ‘weeping’ can be promoted by making incisions (called ‘hurts’) in the trunk and branches of the mature tree and by harvesting the resin from June through to September; ‘hurting’ too young a tree, however, inhibits its growth. The sap coagulates as it drips from the cuts and is collected, rinsed in barrels, and dried: a second cleaning is done by hand. At its prime, a tree will yield 4.5kg of mastic gum in one season. Many varieties of mastic trees grow wild throughout the Mediterranean area; but it is only on Chios that the local Pistacia lentiscuschia variety has become ‘domesticated’ and responded to intensive cultivation.
Dioscorides—observant writer on plants and herbs of the 1st century ad—mentions the mastic gum as used for attaching false eyelashes to eyelids (Materia Medica, I. 91): it was also known in Antiquity as a treatment for duodenal ulcer and heart-burn. Christopher Columbus believed it to be a cure for cholera. But the most enduring quality of the gum has been its power, when masticated, to neutralise and to scent the breath. This was widely appreciated in the harems of Arabia and Turkey; 18th century reports suggest that the Ottoman Sultan kept half of the annual harvest from Chios for the Seraglio in Top Kapi —a quantity equivalent to about 125 tons.
The Genoese were the first to see the commercial potential of intensive production of mastic, and it was for this, more than any other product of the island, that they took such immense pains to protect the island from piracy and secure the villages which produced the precious resin. Under Ottoman occupation this protection was maintained and the villages were given further special privileges, forming a separate administrative region linked directly with the Sublime Porte through elected representation. It was commonly said that the women of the Sultan’s harem, who used the mastic also as a beauty cosmetic, had Chios under their protection. As with the production of any valuable commodity, limitations were put on the producers and the penalties for stealing mastic, first laid down by the Genoese and then perpetuated by the Turks, were severe physical disfigurement.
The flavour of the gum is initially bitter, but after a few minutes of chewing it softens and releases a light, cedar-like freshness into the mouth which remains for about 15 to 20 minutes. The gum has a variety of medicinal, culinary and practical applications; it is soluble in oil of turpentine and was the commonest varnish for pictures in the 19th century; Rubens favoured it as a stabiliser in paints; it is anredient in many kinds of incense, was employed in dentistry for temporary fillings, and, in the refined world of Ottoman cuisine, it is still used in the preparation of true Turkish Delight, or rahat lokum, and as a binding agent with oil, lemon juice and spices to coat the outer surface of the traditional doner kebab. On Chios its distinctive flavour can be sampled in many ways; principally in the local grape spirit, ‘Masticha’, or else in a variety of glika tou koutaliou, or ‘spoon sweets’, submerged in a glass of ice-cold water to assuage thirst. Something of a renaissance in the marketing of mastic has occurred in the last decade, and it is now sold as a nostalgically packaged luxury item, both on the island and further afield in Greece.
Chios Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island group
Southern Chios and the Mastic Villages. Mastic.