A soft, honey-like and highly versatile resin with a distinctly Greek flavour
Chios mastiha has been produced on the southern part of Chios, one of the biggest islands in the Aegean Sea, since the times when Aristotle and Alexander the Great were taking on the world in their very different ways. This resinous sap is produced from the mastic tree and is harvested using one of the more unusual agricultural methods.
“First the ground around these wide but short trees is carefully levelled so as not to harm the tree. Then the farmer scatters a liberal covering of a white powder called kaolin clay over the area,” Marianna, owner of Oliveology, explains. “They then cut shallow and carefully shaped grooves into the bark, from which the resin emerges. At this point the resin is left alone and forms what are locally called ‘tears’, as gravity pulls the soft, honey-like resin to the ground.”
Eventually these ‘tears’, about 15 to 20 days from the first carving, fall into the white clay. This not only keeps them clean, but helps the resin to solidify into irregular shapes. “Once enough of the ‘tears’ have fallen, the farmers carefully gather them up and take them home where they are thoroughly cleaned, giving us mastiha.”
Traditional Greek kitchen
In the traditional Greek kitchen, mastiha has long been a subtle yet fragrant addition to breads, pastries, cream-based desserts and puddings, ice creams and alcoholic beverages. Contemporary Greek cooks are discovering that this ancient spice works beautifully in tomato or wine-based sauces and pairs well with ingredients as varied as fish, poultry, lamb, pork, chocolate, citrus, wild berries and many other things.
“One of the nice things about mastiha is that it is still mainly produced on family farms, who have gotten together in the form of the Chios Mastiha Growers Association to manage overall production,” Marianna explains. “The flavour is difficult to describe—it is a very unusual taste—but I would say it has a pine-like aroma, with elements of earthiness which you get from the wood, but with an exotic twist. You just have to taste it to understand.”
The Greeks are brought up with this flavour: “We use it everywhere. It is a very symbolic spice and is used a lot in breads, cakes, sweets and biscuits baked to celebrate Easter.” However, as a child Marianna’s favourite mastiha use was in a Greek ice cream called kaimaki. The spice gives it a unique chewy texture, as well as its distinct flavour. “I used to love it with a sour cherry compote, which is a classic way of serving kaimaki ice cream.”
At the stall, it is sold in various ways. “There are the resin ‘teardrops’ which have been picked before the resin has dropped to the ground—we sell it as a chewing gum, which is a very popular way of having it back in Greece. We also have it in a concentrated oil, which is used for food flavouring or you can add it to sparkling water as a healthy, refreshing drink,” Marianna says.
In 1997, Chios mastiha was granted protected designation of origin (PDO) status, recognising the uniqueness of this ancient product. “In fact, they have tried growing the trees in other parts of the world with similar climatic conditions but it never works,” Marianna says. “The trees will grow, but they don’t produce the resin. So when you taste our mastiha, you are really getting a flavour of Greece.”