Mastic: a well-travelled, dreamlike aroma from Chios

Wednesday, 30 October 2013. Christina Tsamoura

Mastic: a well-travelled, dreamlike aroma from Chios

On an island so blessed, it’s no wonder even the trees shed tears and that their tears exude one of the gratest aromas of the world, that of Chios mastic.

Born on the shores of the Aegean, it set out on boats to sail for the far oceans early on. Early on means in antiquity. It means Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus and Pliny who wrote about mastic and taught their contemporaries and compatriots how it was used in Carthage and Egypt and fabled Araby. Laden in cargo holds it ploughed the seas and empires. Romans, Byzantines, Genoese and Ottomans took it to ports of commerce and culture: Alexandria, Damascus, Baghdad, Venice, Florence, Marseilles, London. In each port this rare aromatic substance was unloaded and transported to kitchens, confectioners’ and where beverages were made. Some would end up in the boudoirs of ladies, as beauties in all ages used it as an aromatic oil and as a whitener for their teeth to make their smiles invincible and their breaths seductively aromatic.

Time goes by so slowly The Ottoman empire, for those generations who lived through it, seemed to last for eternity. Not in the same manner for everybody, of course. Some could not kill enough time. The ladies in harems belonged to the second category. In writing about mastic, Vasso Kritaki, a woman whose name became associated with Chios and its traditions, referred to Tournefau, a French visitor to the island in the 15th century, who wrote that: “The sultanas consume the greatest part of the mastic that goes to the palace. All morning they sit and chew on an empty stomach to make time pass and to sweeten their breath. The tears of the mastic are used in various foods and in bread dough…”


PΗΟΤΟ: Women of the island following the traditional procedure of making mastic

Provincial by nature, but used in cities The history of mastic reminds one slightly of the history of saffron crocuses in one thing. Those that produce it do not use it very widely, at least not as much as you would think. In Chios, the mastic villages extend over the southern part of the island. The mastic bush does not shed “tears” either in the main town, Chora, nor in the northern part of the island. This rare and aromatic tear became a part of the urban gastronomic tradition of the places that it conquered. This is not only the case in the microcosm of Chios, but also in Greece and Cyprus. When mastic lends its aroma to a bread, sweet, biscuit or even to a little rusk, the result is always festive. The food or sweet escapes its everyday humdrum identity and becomes something else: something suitable to serve at a wedding, christening or great feast.


PHOTO: Clay packs were made in Chios until the 70's especially for crystals of mastic by local clay artisans. These cans were purchased in 1968. 

The aroma of the world The cuisine of Smyrna and Constantinople glorified it. They mixed it into thick buffalo milk butter, sugar and flour and made miracles of the confectioner’s art: Turkish delight, seker pare, pastries with syrup and baklava, vassilopitas and dondurma, not to mention tsoureki with mahaleb and mastic that if you try once will spoil you for any other. Vasso Kritaki remembers well and wrote about the mezythropitoudia of Mytilene and how they smelled and about the taste of mastic in her baklava. She even remembers the mastic submarine, the mastic paste served in a glass of water used to welcome visitors and for weddings, the Chios Turkish delights and masourakia, sweets rolled in almonds that smelled of mastic, and the tyritomba, a sandwich made of biscuits filled with mastic cream that was the delight of every child in times that now seem far gone and foreign.

Mastic today The power of mastic, however, is not in its past. It is the future. Such an aroma cannot but touch modern chefs and confectioners. Ever more are being inspired and creating new recipes, sweet and savoury, to use this precious substance, like amazing nougat with mastic and pistachio nuts or fluffy mastic cake. Products like mastic are a true treasure for Greece, culturally and gastronomically. It is a perfect ambassador abroad and at home because it represents a unique and precious identity that cannot be reproduced just anywhere. It needs Chios' earth, the brine of the Aegean, the Mediterranean sun and the crosswinds, both that of the West and the East.

mastixa all

NEW! 1st Mastiha Festival (30.07.2014-30.08.2014): only four days to go until the opening of the Exhibition of Local Food and Cultural Products on Wednesday July 30th at 19.30 at the #Chios Municipal Garden. In the meantime, check out the rich programme of events and try not to miss anything! #Mastiha, #Festival

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