We have recently noticed an increase in awareness of mastic as an ingredient, so have decided to share some previous information to help demystify this fascinating and useful spice.
Mastic is the name given to the resinous gum that exudes from the scored bark of the Gum Mastic Tree. There are many varieties of mastic trees (Pistacia lentiscus) in the Mediterranean and Middle East, yet most of the world’s production of gum mastic comes from the “Protected Designation of Origin” trees (P. lentiscus var. Chia) that grow on the Greek island of Chios. The name mastic derives from the Greek word mastichon which means to chew.
Mastic has a slightly resinous, pine-like flavour and can be chewed just like chewing gum. Mastic is used in cooking for the consistency it gives to Greek slow-cooked lamb, it is used in ice cream and in The Spice & Herb Bible there is a recipe for an Asparagus and Mastic Summer Soup.
Between June and September, Mastic farmers ‘hurt’ the trees by scoring the bark. The tears that ooze out in stalactite-like strands fall onto white kaolin clay that has been spread on the ground below the trees. This promotes drying and contributes to the clarity of the mastic that falls onto it.
The gathered mastic is then stored in cellars to further solidify, and during winter, families in the mastic villages clean and grade the resin into different sized ‘tears’ ready for sale.
Extract from Spice Notes & Recipes by Ian Hemphill:
The gum mastic tree, or schinos as the Chia variety is called in its native Greek island of Chios, is a slow-growing, hardy evergreen tree that averages 2–3 m in height, although some have been known to reach 5 m. The mastic tree has shiny dark-green leaves, resembling those of myrtle. The trunk is rough and gnarled and when tapped yields a clear resinous substance which when coagulated is called gum mastic. The valuable gum mastic flows when the grey bark has been cut, or ‘hurt’, to tap the supply. Full growth of these charming trees is achieved after 40–50 years, and some trees are known to be up to 200 years old. Mastic production commences when the trees are five to six years old, reaching maximum yield of up to 1 kg per tree when the tree is 15 years old. The end of a tree’s productive life comes at about 70 years of age.
The sappy gum hardens after ‘hurting’ and is most often seen in either large (3–5 mm) or small (2–3 mm) pieces, referred to as ‘tears’. The texture of these tears is brittle and somewhat crystalline. When broken, mastic tears reveal a shiny surface resembling a piece of chipped quartz and release a faint pine-like aroma. The flavour is initially bitter and mineral-like, becoming more neutral after a few minutes chewing, when it takes on the consistency and opaque fawn colour of chewing gum. Even after 15–20 minutes chewing, a surprising degree of mouth-freshening flavour remains, unlike today’s highly flavoured chewing gums, which seem to expire in a matter of minutes. In cooking mastic does contribute to flavour although its main function is for texture and as a binding agent. A gum mastic oil is also produced by distillation of the leaves and branches of mastic trees, however, few cooks would be familiar with it as its primary use is in the manufacturing of sweets, liqueurs and medicines.
Origin and History
One legend, which I feel is particularly appropriate, has it that when Saint Issidoros was tortured to death by the Romans in AD 250, his body was dragged under the mastic tree. Upon seeing the saint’s mutilated form, the tree started to cry with real tears.
There are many varieties of mastic trees in the Mediterranean and Middle East, yet most of the world’s production of gum mastic comes from the Greek island of Chios, where an unsurpassed passion and dedication to the gum mastic tree is evident, and there is even a Gum Mastic Grower’s Association. Mastic has a long history that dates back to classical times and is mentioned by erudite Greek authors such as Pliny, Dioscorides, Galenus and Theophrastus. Mastic was well known to the pharaohs, and was mentioned by Hippocrates (the ancient doctor known as ‘the father of medicine’) as a cure for all manner of ailments from baldness to intestinal and bladder problems, as a paste for toothache and to apply in cases of snakebite.
From the tenth century on, Chios became famous for its masticha. The name derives from the Greek word mastichon, which means ‘to chew’ and is the root of the English word ‘masticate’, for it was as a chewing gum and mouth freshener that mastic was commonly used. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the production of mastic was highly organised and controlled by the ‘Scriba Masticis’, clerks whose job was the registration of the production of gum mastic. Such was the importance of mastic that during Turkish occupation, mastic-producing villages on Chios were given special privileges, such as their own management and permission to strike the church bells. In all there were 21 mastic villages, which paid their tithes with 26 tonnes of mastic and were thus made free from paying all other taxes. As with most valuable commodities, the penalties for stealing gum mastic were draconian to say the least, and the severity related directly to the quantity stolen. Receivers of stolen mastic also had the same punishment meted out to them. These punitive measures ranged from having one’s ears and/or nose cut off, to branding with red-hot steel on the forehead, or getting your eyes burnt out. The ultimate penalty was hanging, if one was caught with over 200 kilos. Thus Kyriakus Pitsiccoli of Angona, when on one of his many visits to Chios between 1435 and 1440, was heard to say, ‘If you wish to live in Chios, just keep the gum mastic and never steal it.’
Today the Gum Mastic Grower’s Association lists 64 uses for mastic, extolling among other things, its anti-cancer properties, use in treatment of duodenal ulcers, benefits for oral hygiene and use in South Morocco and Mauritania as an aphrodisiac.
Production of gum mastic is still strictly controlled and occurs between June and September. This begins by first cleaning and levelling the ground around the base of the trees with white clay – called ‘currying’. The white clay contains limestone, which promotes drying and contributes to the clarity in mastic that falls onto it. The first cutting, or ‘hurt’, of 10–20 wounds is made on the trunk, typically in the morning, which is the best time for maximum sap flow. Up to 100 cuts are made over the season, however, too much ‘hurting’ of young trees will inhibit future yields. Over the next 10–20 days, coagulation takes place as gum mastic oozes out of the cuts. The tears are collected, first using a special tool called a ‘timitiri’ to remove them from the trunk. The rest of the mastic on the ground is collected, put into wooden crates and transferred to the houses where it is sorted, ready for cleaning by the village’s womenfolk during winter. After sieving to remove any adhering leaves and soil, the gum is washed in cold, soapy water, rinsed thoroughly and spread out on bags inside the houses to dry. After drying, a small knife is used to remove any remaining dirty particles. Much of the winter in the mastic villages is spent carefully cleaning the summer’s production by hand to prepare it for sale. Clean gum mastic is categorised into three main grades. ‘Pitta’ is the foam that occurs when many drops become one; this grade is the largest (pieces up to 7 cm in diameter) and has an oval shape. Next are large tears, which measure about 10–15 mm in length, and small tears that average 3–6 mm in diameter. Tiny pieces are classified as powder, and any uncleaned remains left over are usually distilled for use in perfumes and alcoholic drinks, such as ouzo and raki.
Buying and Storage
Gum mastic can be purchased from Greek and Middle Eastern food stores and specialty food retailers. The most common pack size is 1–5 g because it is relatively expensive and a recipe only requires a small amount to be used at a time. Tears should be quite clear and transparent with a slight golden tone. The best storage conditions are in a cool place, as exposure to extreme or prolonged heat will cause the tears to become cloudy and discolour, with a subsequent loss of flavour.
Mastic appears to have myriad applications ranging from the medicinal to the functional, including use as a stabiliser in paints, and for making varnishes, especially for musical instruments. It has been used in the production of tyres, aromatic soaps, insecticides and electrical insulators. Frankincense is produced from gum mastic and rosin, and mastic has been used in the tanning, weaving and bee-keeping industries. Where mastic really shines of course is when it comes to culinary uses. Besides being used in toothpaste, chewing gum and confectionery, it is an ingredient in the making of liqueurs. Included in the best and most authentic Turkish delight, it is found in recipes for breads and pastries, ice-creams, sweet puddings and almond cake.
Source: The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian Hemphill with recipes by Kate Hemphill. Published by Robert Rose Inc. Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Herbie visits Chios, the home of Gum Mastic.