What is Mastic?
Though there a many varieties of mastic trees growing throughout the Mediterranean, it is on the Greek island of Chios that the production of gum mastic is centred with its Pistacia lentiscus chia variety. Chios became famous for its masticha, which derives from the Greek mastichon and is the root of the English word masticate, all meaning “to chew”.
You’ve likely already figured out that mastic was the original chewing gum and mouth freshener. As a hardened gum, the flavour is initially bitter, but after a few minutes of chewing takes on its gummy consistency and releases a mouth freshening flavour which remains for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Chios became a Latin colony in 1172 for nearly four centuries under the siege of the Venetians and the Genoeses who were the first to commercialize mastic. In 1566 the island fell under Turkish Ottoman occupation who considered the mastic production so important the mastic producing villages were given special privileges, forming a separate administrative region linked directly with Istanbul through elected representation. It is said that the women in the Sultan’s harem used mastic as a beauty cosmetic and Chios was under their protection. As with most valuable commodities, the penalties for stealing mastic were gruesome: noses cut off, eyes burnt out, forehead brandings and hangings. In 1821, after an attempted rebellion the Turks engaged in the terrible massacres which were immortalised by Delacroix’s famous canvas Massacres de Chios. The island finally ceded to Greece in 1913.
Mastic is a resin, the hardened sap from a tree. It appears as pea-sized globules, known as tears. They are rounded, pear shaped, sometimes oblong, with a brittle, crystalline texture. The resin is semi-translucent, pastel yellow or faint green at its best, white mastic being inferior. Sometimes the resin is frosted with a whitish powder.
There are two grades of mastic: the immaculate, first-class crystals ware called ‘dahtilidopetres’ (flintstones) and the soft ones with spots which are called ‘kantiles’ (blisters). Mastic may also be sold in congealed chunks called ‘pitta’. Although well known in the Balkans and the Middle East, mastic is not widely available elsewhere.
Bouquet: slightly piney. Mastic does not have a powerful bouquet, but purifies the breath.
Flavor: a cedar taste.
Hotness Scale: 0
Preparation and Storage
Pulverize to a powder before using. Pounding it becomes easier with the addition of a little sugar or salt.. Store in airtight containers.
Uses of Mastic
Mastic appears to have myriad applications ranging from the medicinal to the functional, including use as a stabilizer in paints and making varnishes, especially for musical instruments. It has been used in the production of tires, aromatic soaps, insecticides and electrical insulators. Frankincense is produced from gum mastic and rosin, and it has been used in the tanning, weaving and beekeeping industries. Mastic has been used in dentistry as a filling and in industry in varnishes for metal and paintings. In Arabia, water jars were perfumed with mastic smoke and in ancient Egypt mastic was used as an embalming agent.
Cooking with Mastic
Besides being used in toothpaste, chewing gum and confectionery, mastic is an ingredient in the making of liqueurs. A Greek grape spirit, mastiha, is flavoured with the resin, as is the Turkish liqueur, raki. It is essential in rahat locum, the authentic Turkish delight, and it is found in recipes for breads and pastries, ice creams, sweet puddings and almond cake. Mastic is also used as a binding agent with oil, lemon juice and spices to coat the traditional Turkish doner kebab — as the meat cooks, thin slivers are sliced off and served in pita bread.
In Greece the best mastic comes from the island of Chios. It is used in the baking of bread and pastries, and also for one of the traditional ‘spoon sweets’, gliko tou koutaliou. A spoonful of this gooey sweet followed by a glass of ice-cold water is marvellous in hot weather. In Cyprus, small rings of mastic-flavoured bread are topped with sesame seeds.
Mastic pounded with sugar and rose or orange blossom water is a popular flavouring in the Middle East, used in desserts, sweetmeats, ice cream, syrups and cordials. For most cooking puposes, mastic is pounded with a little sugar and mixed with rose or orange blossom water. Only small amounts are necessary, a quarter to half teaspoon sufficing for a dish for four people.
Health Benefits of Mastic
Stimulant and diuretic, mastic was widely used medicinally in the past and chewed to neutralise foul breath. Compound mastic paint is a plastic substance painted as a sealant over wounds. It has been used as a temporary tooth filling either by itself or as a cotton wool plug soaked with a mastic solution in alcohol. It is thought to have anti-microbial properties and Columbus believed it was a cure for cholera. The Gum Mastic Grower’s Association lists over 60 uses for mastic including its use in the treatment of duodenal ulcers, heartburn, its anti-cancer properties and extolling its aphrodisiac effects.
Plant Description and Cultivation
A Mediterranean shrub with dense twisted branches, 1-4m (3-l3ft) in height. The leaves are paripinnate with four to ten elliptical, glossy and leathery leaflets. It bears red berries in tightly packed clusters, which turn black on ripening. The resin occurs in the bark. Harvesting is from June to September. About 10 to 20 incisions (called “hurts’) are made in the trunk and main branches, and the resin is collected as It “weeps” in tears. About 100 cuts are made over the season, though “hurting” younger trees inhibits future yields. Over the month, the syrup coagulates as the gum mastic drips from the cuts and it is collected then rinsed in barrels and dried. A second cleaning is done by hand. At its prime, a tree will yield 4.5kg (l0 lbs) of mastic in one season.
Italian: lentischio, mastice
Spanish: lentisco, mastique
Pistacia lentiscus Fam: Anacardiacae