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Eating Greek
Tears of Joy: Chios Mastic


By Diana Farr Louis

Photography: Dimitris Koilalous, Vassilis Stenos / Food styling: Dawn Brown, Paola Lakah

 

The old man nudged my forearm. “Look, there, can you read the name above the door of that house? It says KOLOMBO. Yes, that Kolombos, Christoforos Kolombos. That's where he lived before he went to Spain and discovered the New World.

He didn't stay here long but it was this island that pushed him across the ocean.”

We're standing in the center of Pyrgi, the largest of the 24 so-called mastic villages on the eastern Aegean island of Chios. With its corbelled walls, narrow lanes bridged by long, low archways, stone houses bearing the patina of centuries, and at its heart the defence tower for which it was named, Pyrgi certainly looks old enough to have entertained Columbus. Indeed his countrymen, the Genoese, founded it and the other mastic-producing villages, 200 to 300 years before his visit.

Mastic trees

We all know that Colombus was born in Genoa and dedicated his voyages to the rulers of Spain, but this was the first time I'd heard of the Chios connection. Columbus apparently stayed on the island between 1473 and 1474, a fact that sparked enough conjecture to feed the rumour mill for centuries.

The man lowered his voice in a conspiratorial whisper, “This is where he found out about mastic. It was in great demand in those days, so he thought if he could find another source, he could break the Chios monopoly and get very rich. In the

New World found trees that looked just like mastic trees, but they didn't weep like ours.”

The tree grows in many places but it only sheds its tears, thus producing its valuable crystals, in southern Chios

A BEGUILING RESIN

Mastic, a strange but beguiling crystal that flavours Greek cakes and breads, myriad confections an ouzo-like liqueur, and a chewing gum, is also used in making varnishes, adhesives, and an impressive catalogue of potions and lotions that seem to be good for whatever ails you. It has been the island's most prized natural resource for centuries. Mastic comes from the resin that seeps like teardrops from the bark of a scrubby tree related to the pistachio.

But as my informant insisted, this tree will only shed its tears in southern Chios, a peculiarity reflected in the legend of the island's patron saint, Isidore.

Apparently the trees began to cry in sympathy when Romans tortured the Christian martyr and left him to die in a mastic grove.

Herodotus, however, had noted their behavior in the 5th century BC, more than seven centuries earlier. And people may have been chewing its crystals since the dawn of language; mastic is the root of the verb to masticate.

I revisited Pyrgi again one late September, nearing the end of the mastic harvest. Older women with their hair bound in kerchiefs, laps concealed by wide aprons, bent over round trays where they painstakingly separated the precious mastic crystals from the dead leaves, twigs, and earth that had been raked up during their collection. Next to each stood a large sack with more stuff to pick over and a bright blue washtub for rinsing the crystals. This step can take weeks. Most mastic trees yield no more than 200 grams of resin, but the annual production is rising steadily. In 2004, 128 tons were produced and in 2005, 160 tons.

 
 
A TIME-TESTED, LUCRATIVE PANACEA

Mastic production is controlled by the Chios Cooperative of Mastic Producers, and in recent years the cooperative has done an exemplary job of marketing its age-old natural resource.

Under the cooperative's aegis, elegant boutiques selling mastic products have opened shoppers in the main Greek cities, and several are being planned for abroad. At the same time scientists are confirming what earlier savants had observed: Mastic is good for myriad ailments.

Both Roman and Victorian gentry cleaned their teeth with mastic wood toothpicks.

Aristocrats at the courts of Versailles and Topkapi chewed the gum assiduously to sweeten their breath and prevent tooth decay. Justinian's physician, Aetios, invented a mastic-based lotion to protect the emperor's sensitive skin from sunburn.

Mastic creams were said to make your complexion glow, while drinking it could induce feelings of optimism and even euphoria. Doctors in late antiquity prescribed mastic compounds for digestive problems, stomach pains, vomiting and anorexia and used it to treat burns.

By the 14th century, the mastic trade was so lucrative that the Genoese had conquered Chios to gain control of it. They imposed strict price and quantity controls and their vice squads searched every ship for evidence of black marketeering. When the Ottoman Turks wrested power from Genoa in the late 16th century, they offered privileges to Chios in exchange for a vast portion of mastic crystals in tribute to the Sultan. The precious commodity meant so much to them they even called their new possession Sakis Adasi or Resin Island. And their fear of losing it provoked the massacre of 1822, when Turkish soldiers murdered 30,000 islanders, who expressed sympathy with the newly proclaimed independent Greece, while enslaving thousands more and corralling the women into harems.

 

THE MASTIC VILLAGES

In the mastic villages, modernity is most notable in its absence. Mesta, for example, the second most famous village after Pyrgi, still fits inside its original fortification walls and is entered by the same four gates. They lead to a bewildering warren of streets, unexpected culs de sac and tunnels, that were deliberately designed to confuse would-be invaders, whether pirates or foreign conquerors. It resembles a North African casbah, much more than an Italian medieval village. The architecture alternates between severe stone cubes and gentle stone arches, decorated in late summer by necklaces of small, fire-engine red tomatoes, drying in the sun.

Hanging from drainpipes, balcony railings, and nails hammered into white plastered walls, they look like Christmas ornaments, all the more vivid because of the lack of color elsewhere. As for the arches, they not only curve above doorways and alleyways but form vaulted ceilings inside churches and even in the community center in one of the main squares, where the Women's Cooperative of Mesta holds lunch parties for visiting dignitaries and journalists.

There, I've been served a couple of extraordinary banquets, consisting solely of dishes cooked with mastic, including meatballs and fish fillets seasoned with mastic liqueur, roast chicken, goat stew, and “wedding” bread flavoured with pulverized mastic crystals and winding up with crème caramele and mastic cakes and cookies.

The addition of mastic has to be judicious —never more than a few tablespoonfuls of the liqueur, or two to three grams of powder. It should inject a certain something, rather than a knockout blow to the taste buds.

Back in Pyrgi, the decorations covering virtually every inch of built surface send other senses whirling.

Whereas Mesta is austere and sober, Pyrgi is an encyclopedia of every ornamental motif imaginable - all in elegant charcoal grey against a white background. Triangles, squares, hourglasses, lozenges, half-moons and many, many more run in horizontal bands from one corner to the next; garlands, stars, flower petals, ringed suns lighten and brighten a four-arched corridor; stout stone columns branch out to form an arched canopy of diamonds, crosses and checkerboards over a traditional café; even the cats are black and white. Here, too, there are splashes of color—from flamboyant sprays of pink bougainvillea, faded green and blue doors and of course the ubiquitous drying tomatoes.

Who knows why Pyrgi alone should have adopted this unique art form, called xysta, found nowhere else in Greece except in Lithi, another lesser known mastic village? Xysta comes from the verb xyno, to scratch, and describes the design process. The technique is related to the Genoese’s graffito, but I've never seen anything this elaborate in Genoa.

 
The resinous crystals are still harvested traditionally by hand.

HARVESTING THE RESIN

Care of the mastic groves is a year-round job carried out by the families of some 4,850 members of the mastic-producers' union. The winter months involve pruning and thinning branches, followed by clearing and weeding the area under the trees until it is smooth.

Then fine white earth is sifted over the area and tamped firm. The resin would darken and spoil if it dripped and dried onto brown earth. Summer marks the start of the pricking season. From early July until late September, the men make vertical slits, 4-5 mm deep and 10-15 mm long, in the trunks and branches of every tree twice a week. The process is called kentima, a word that also means embroidery, but it more like the jabs one makes in a leg of lamb to insert a garlic sliver. A tree can receive from between 20 and 100 slits, depending on its age.

Though they may live to be more than 100 years old, mastic trees don't begin to ooze resin until after their fifth year and remain productive until they reach 70. The resin usually takes 10 to 20 days to crystallize and the first harvest in the second half of August yields bigger tears. The second harvest lasts from mid-September until mid- October or the first rain storm, while cleaning the crystals for processing may last until pruning time.

Mastic is a natural chewing gum

Crawling under a tree with a local woman as guide made me see that mastic collection over so many months could wear permanent grooves in the knees and palms.

These trees don't grow higher than 3 meters and you certainly can't stand upright under them. Yet there was something almost mystical about crouching under the mastic umbrella, and getting a really close look at the moldy green lichen-spattered branches that glistened with tiny “icicles.” It's such an unprepossessing little shrub and yet in 2004 these crystals earned the union almost 14 million euros.

 
Mastic is becoming as popular today as it was in the past

MASTIC AND HEALTH

Although demand for mastic fell drastically in the 20th century as the chemicals industry devised ways of making artificial resins for varnishes, and American gum manufacturers turned to chicle from South America's far more common sapodilla tree, mastic is re-emerging from obscurity, in no small part thanks to recent scientific findings lauding its many health benefits.

For example, a research team from the UK's Nottingham University has found that even small amounts of mastic can destroy the helicobacter pylori bacteria, which only a decade ago was recognized as the prime cause of peptic ulcers and stomach cancer.

Furthermore, mastic adhesive bandages heal rather than hurt your skin, as do mastic-based surgical sutures; mastic appears to be able to lower cholesterol levels, it has anti-inflammatory properties, acts as an antioxidant (smoothing wrinkles inside and out) and may even offer protection against arteriosclerosis.

Yesterday's panacea is looking increasingly like tomorrow's wonder drug. It may even raise gum-chewing out of the gutter and back into polite society.

And to think that it's completely natural. This miracle tree weeps its diamond tears only around the mastic villages of Chios. But in October 2001, a mission from the island planted a mastic tree next to the house where Columbus is said to have lived in Genoa. It may never shed crystals but it stands as an unexpected and moving reminder of the ongoing link between a small Greek island, a humble tree, and dozens of New World discoveries.

 

Diana Farr Louis is the author of Feasting and Fasting in Crete. She has written two guidebooks to Corfu and has contributed to the Penguin, Berlitz, and Fodor guides to Greece.

 
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