Listen to “The Mystique of Mastic”: Podcast with Aliza Green and Mark Tafoya of Culinary Media Network
By Aliza Green
“Mastic has the mysterious virtue and power to bring on Aphrodite’s excitements,” claimed seventeenth-century Italian geographer, Francesco Piacenza. The fifteenth century Arabic love manual The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight advises men to pound mastic berries with oil and honey, and drink the liquid first thing in the morning: “You will thus become vigorous for the coitus.” Although mastic’s benefits may not all be quite so tangible, it is the most valuable spice, cosmetic, and cure-all in Greece, Turkey, and from Atlantic Morocco to the Arabian Peninsula. Used as a seasoning, mastic is haunting and slightly sweet in flavor with hints of rosemary, mint, and fennel, a mild, cleansing bitter undertone, and an earthy aroma like a pine forest.
For more than 2,500 years, the people of Chios, Greece, a large island close enough to Turkey for it to be clearly visible, have been “hurting” the island’s wild pistachio “crying trees,” tapping them for clear tears of mastic. Also known as lentisk, the trees grow elsewhere, but only in Chios do they give up their sap–over 120 tons each year‑-perhaps because of underwater volcanoes, perhaps as a favor of the gods. The 5,000 families that garner their living from mastic have an intimately intertwined relationship with their cherished trees.
Once a week in the cool of early morning, villagers skillfully “hurt” each tree, which rewards them by releasing its clear drops of resin. In the past, families would sleep near their trees to start the collection before sunrise. Pirates raided Mesta for its valuable crystals. During the Genoan period of control, .stealing even one crystals was punished by the loss of the thief’s ear, hand, nose, or even his life. This thirsty work is best quenched by a Chios specialty: “submarine” (honey-sweetened mastic cream submerged in a glass of cool well water).
With the goal of reinvigorating the Mastichohoria (traditional mastic villages) through sustainable tourism, Roula and Vassilis Ballas, two young escapees from the IT world and the diesel fumes of Athens, moved to tiny medieval Mesta to begin a new life as organic farmers and guides. Together with the help of the villagers, they created Masticulture, an organization specializing in ecotourism that promotes Chios’s rich cultural and agricultural heritage. “Vassilis and Roula are the faces of a new kind of tourism in Greece…Their programs are for people who are not satisfied with lying out on a beach like lizards,” says Matt Barrett of Greecetravel.com.
For Mastic Mystique, knowledgeable (and English-speaking) guides help eco-enthusiasts collect the mysteriously beneficial sap. After hiking to a small oasis-like mastic grove, the group learns to brush away debris then spread special white clay under the trees to keep the crystals clean as they fall to the ground. Using traditional needle-like tools, they prick the bark, piercing it small cuts called kentima, or embroidering, suggesting the delicate nature of the task. Slowly, slowly the precious resin begins to flow onto the white ground, which participants collect, sort, and clean.
For refreshment, the group draws cool water from an ancient well then picnics on local tomatoes and cucumbers, Mastelo cheese, bread from the “zymoto” (wood-fired oven), salty olives, sweet Mesta wine, and soumada (mastic-infused bitter almond juice). Next, they stroll through villages where residents have adorned their houses with bold geometric scrafitti designs (like graffiti) scratched into the walls using a method unique to the mastic region.
Masticulture’s walking tours last two hours to a full day and run year-round, but visitors from July through October can see villagers harvest the mastic from thousands of trees that they call “schinos”. In springtime wild tulips carpet the meadows in riotous colors while tangerine and almond tree blossoms give off their heady perfume. In winter, the air is redolent with mastic, because villagers burn mastic wood in their fireplaces. Visitors in autumn can learn to pick edible wild mushrooms and anyone that helps prune the olive and mastic trees may end up carrying back enough wood to burn in that fireplace in the room.
Greek culinary authority, Aglaia Kremezi, told me, “”I prefer mastic in the foods that traditionally were scented with it–the ice cream, some festive breads, cookies and a few cakes. Its elusive sweet flavor and aroma, with a somewhat bitter undertone, is an acquired taste, I found. I, as most Greeks of my generation love it, but I have seen that our visitors and some younger Greeks are divided. For example, after just tasting it, many reject kaimaki, preferring vanilla ice cream, something I find totally incomprehensible…”
Chew on the clear amber-like crystals and they soften into pliable chewing gum that freshens the breath, whitens the teeth, and soothes the stomach. Beyond seasoning food, mastic has myriad benefits for body and hair care, as an aid in reducing ulcers, and for relaxing aromatherapy. Mastic is the secret ingredient in silky-smooth Turkish ice cream, dondurma, and in its Greek equivalent, pagoto kaimaki. Crushed mastic crystals go into shish kebab and shwarma marinades, rustic breads, sesame halvah, cakes, cookies, and Chios’ ouzo-like Mastichato. Mixed with rosewater and cardamom, mastic flavors puffy loukoumades fritters and creamy white pudding. The same berries said to enhance male vigor add their potent flavor to sausage, while burning its leaves and stems imbues meats with resinous smoke. Mastic may be a bit exotic at first but given a chance, it’s utterly beguiling, so stock up on the small tins of tears before leaving this fragrant island.
Culinary tour to Chios and Beyond:
Fragrant Fields and Turkish Delights: Exploring Aegean and Ottoman Cuisines, a small group Greek and Turkish culinary tour hosted by Aliza Green, for more information visit www.epicopia.com.
Chios Masticulture Tours and Accommodation:
Masticulture, based in the mastic village of Mesta, specializes in ecotourism, with activities relating to Chios’ natural resources, traditions, and culture. Join organized tours led by a professional guide where they demonstrate traditional agricultural practices like mastic harvesting, olive and grape pressing, fermenting figs into souma, a local alcoholic beverage, and harvesting wheat and then making it into flour and wood-oven fired bread. Tours can be done by car, bicycle, a donkey, or boat, but most are by foot. They will also arrange accommodations in a variety of locations for all budgets, including rooms in private houses.
Telephone / fax: (+30) 22710 76084
Mobile: (+30) 6976 113 007, (+30) 6973 55 8881
Where to buy mastic:
The Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association sponsors stores that sell all mastic, all the time in New York and in various locations in Greece, including Athens Airport.
Mastica Shop New York
145 Orchard St
New York, NY 10002
Elixir Spices & Herbs
41, Evripidou Street (near the Central Market)
Tel.: (+30) 210 3215141
- Kalustyan’s Fine Specialty Foods
123 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY