“We discover references to mastic in such diverse places as the logbooks of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, and in the account and recipe books of the Sultans of Topkapi and the Seraglio. We read in the history books that the allure of mastic drew emperors, monarchs, and princes into battles for control of the mastic lands and villages of Chios,” wrote the late Dun Gifford in his introduction to the 1999 Oldways Symposium about the “Healthy Mediterranean Diets and Traditions of Chios and Lesbos islands.”
Last week, some twenty years later, mastic became the talk of the world!
“Over my 54 years, I’ve pinned my hopes on my parents, my teachers, my romantic partners, God.
I’m pinning them now on a shrub.
It’s called mastic, it grows in particular abundance on the Greek island of Chios and its resin — the goo exuded when its bark is gashed — has been reputed for millenniums to have powerful curative properties,” wrote Frank Bruni in the New York Times.
Along with Oldways –that first promoted the Mediterranean Diet in the early 1990ies– I was part of the organizing committee of that lively gathering of chefs, authors, journalists, scientists, and buyers mainly from the US, but also from Europe, Turkey, and other countries.
Lesbos’ main product was olive oil and that was right down Oldways’ alley.
But Chios’ mastic –the crystallized sap of the wild pistachio shrub (Pistachia lentiscus) which grows only on the southern part of this island– was a new and somewhat esoteric flavoring. For centuries it was only exported to the Arab countries and the Middle East. Mastic was the ancient chewing gum, hence the verb ‘masticate.’To this day it is still chewed in Greece to clean and sweeten the breath while the ground crystals traditionally add their elusive licorice-pine-like aroma to many traditional breads and cookies.
An acquired taste
At the time of the Symposium the mastic producers had enlisted a young educated president for their cooperative and were eager to expand the sales of their sizeable mastic production far beyond the East, to the US and Europe. The participants tasted many traditional and creative dishes, both sweet and savory, but most were not particularly impressed with mastic’s elusive flavor and aroma which proved to be an acquired taste for non-Greeks. I clearly remember Gifford’s final remarks at the Symposium’s closing. He suggested that the mastic producers should basically focus on the healing and healthful properties of the crystals about which we had heard from various scientists.
For years, though, we were being bombarded by new ‘creative’ edible uses of the aromatic, like a mastic-scented olive oil which is now, fortunately, almost forgotten. On the other hand, shampoos, face and hair masks, and other cosmetics with mastic were quite successful all over the world as they followed ancient suggestions about the crystal’s healing and healthful properties that apparently have been tested by some modern scientists, as Frank Bruni’s piece in the New York Times attests.
As kids we used to love mastic ypovrichio (submarine): a teaspoon of mastic-scented soft sugar candy served plunged in iced water, hence its name.
I still remember the wonderful ice creams we used to make in summer, when I was a child, using a rented hand-cranked machine, to which we added ice and coarse salt. In those days, the cream was thickened not with eggs but with salep, a starch produced by pounding the dried tuber of a wild orchid. Ice creams thickened with salep form strands as you dip into them. Today, such wonderful eggless ice cream, called dondurma, is found only in Turkey and in some Arab countries. I love it, but it seems that it is yet one more of the foods that only we, in the Eastern Mediterranean really appreciate; Americans and Europeans prefer smooth ice creams and are not crazy about dondurmas’ texture.
Meanwhile Greek chefs have not given up and are still trying to incorporate mastic to savory foods, yet in most cases they don’t manage to come up with a flavorful, let alone memorable dish. Only Tzitzikas and Mermigas –a popular meze restaurant in downtown Athens– serves the most delicious mastihato chicken “the best ‘nouveau’ Greek dish I’ve had this year,” as a reviewer wrote on Tripadvisor. Chicken breast is served on a kadaifi, shredded phyllo pastry nest doused in a creamy mastic-scented sauce with bacon. Although I was expecting to hate it, I must agree with the reviewer that it is a really delicious dish!
RECIPE: Mastic Ice Cream