The tears of the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus var. Chios), which for hundreds of years have made Chios renowned throughout the world, continue to give life to the island, in the form of new products, uses and applications.
Chios mastiha (or mastic) is the natural resin that oozes from the trunk and branches of the tree, when they are slit with a sharp knife, and emerges like tear drops from the ‘wound’. This thick, sticky fluid hardens after about 15 to 20 days into irregular crystals of varying shapes and sizes. Their initial taste is rather bitter, but fleeting, leaving a unique and indescribable aroma.
Chios mastiha was recognized in ancient times both for its special scent and for its therapeutic properties. It was the world’s first chewing gum, and from antiquity on people chewed it to clean their teeth and freshen their breath. It was also an active ingredient in many pharmaceutical remedies and was known as cure for ulcers from the time of Dioscurides (and rediscovered in the late 20th century).
The mastic tree is an evergreen shrub that may grow as high as 3 metres. It develops slowly, taking 40 to 50 years to reach its final form, but starts producing its precious resin within five years of being planted. The bush itself could not be more common in coastal areas all over the Mediterranean, and yet it is only on Chios, and the southern half of that island, to be precise, around the so-called Mastiha Villages (Mastihohoria), that the trees produce their resin commercially viable amounts. It has been the primary source of income for residents of the area for countless generations.
In Greece mastiha had a multitude of uses, beginning with the creation of Holy Myrrh, which requires large doses of the substance. But it was and is a flavoring agent added to ecclesiastical breads, festive breads such as the brioche-like tsoureki, cakes and sweets. Favourites among the latter are the ‘submarine’ spoon sweet, a gummy substance beloved of children especially and served dunked in a glass of cold water, and the somewhat sticky ice cream known as ‘kaimaki’.
Mastiha production in the 24 Mastiha Villages is the third most important source of income on Chios, after shipping and the undeclared contributions of the expatriate Chiots. The Chios Mastic Gum Growers Association, founded in 1938, has the exclusive right to process and handle mastiha both in Greece and abroad. All growers are obliged to sell their annual crop to the union.
Besides being used in food and beverages – it is especially popular in the Arab World – mastiha is also a component of various nonedible substances, such as varnish and adhesives.
There are also seven companies producing mastiha liqueur on the island, which brings in higher profits than the local ouzo distilled by the same firms. There are also five or six manufacturers of spoon sweets and other products containing mastiha from the ‘submarine’ to Turkish delight and pastelli (sesame bars), not to mention chewing gum.