Blog 12 13 June 2015 Tears of the Mastic Bush: A Resin worth its Weight in Gold.
Tears of the Mastic Bush: A Resin worth its Weight in Gold.
Gum mastic is the resin of the Lentisk tree which is grown in the southern part of the island of Chios. Although there are Lentisk trees elsewhere, it is only in this part of the island that it produces the fine resin. Over time, there have been numerous attempts to transplant these trees elsewhere, including taking the surrounding earth to plant them in, but if one or two survive, they never produce the precious resin. Fossilized mastic leaves have been discovered dating back six million years and it has been speculated that this area is unique due to underwater volcanic activity. Whatever the theory, it still remains one of nature’s mysteries that the resin is only produced in this particular area.
According to local legend, “This bush only grows at the land of Chios, which was watered by the tears and blood of the martyr Isidorus” Michael Ioustinianis 1667 A.D.
Isodorus died in 253 A. D. and of course this story follows the Christian tradition, but the history of mastic can be traced back to pre-classical times. Archaeologists have discovered the existence of The Incense Road, which was as important to the West as The Silk Road was to the East. Mastic was once as highly prized as Frankincense, and together with myrrh, they were used in Egyptian embalming over four thousand years ago. Given this fact, we can safely assume that the use of mastic must date back well before any written evidence. During classical Greek and Roman times, the health benefits of mastic were widely known and documented by such people as Herodotus, Dioscourides and Hippocrates who records that “the inner part of the resin, when mixed with honey, can be chewed as well as used as an ointment for the nose.”
Dioscourides – 1st century doctor and botanist, often referred to as the “Father of Pharmacy”, emphasizes the benefits of “cleansing the skin, making it radiant and shining, and it helps to thicken the eyelashes…mastic refreshes the breath and helps to keep healthy gums.” Ancient doctors referred to its use against rabies in mules, snake bites and inflammation of the stomach, intestines and liver. It was also used in cough medicine, in medicine for the bladder and as an anti-pus ointment. Other benefits recorded throughout history include having anti-thrombotic properties, aiding blood reproduction, preventing dysentery and uterine bleeding. It aids digestion and its essential oil is antiseptic helping to heal wounds. For cosmetic purposes, it was highly valued among the women of Rome as a complexion whitener. Finally, the Lentisk wood is excellent for toothpicks, especially after the tips have been dipped in essential oil.
During the Byzantine period, mastic was a luxury commodity controlled by the Emperor. After the island was conquered by the Venetians and the Genoese, a feud erupted as to who would take over the gum mastic monopoly. It was the Genoese who came to organize it, taking it to all the great cities of the day. During one of his travels, Christopher Columbus visited Chios to recruit sailors. He is believed to have stayed in Pyrgi, the main mastic village. In a letter dated February 15, 1493, Columbus wrote a letter to the treasurer of Aragon notifying him of the discovery of The New World and mastic.
“To conclude, only about what happened during my travels, their excellencies (Isabel and Ferdinand, who sponsored his trip) will see that I can provide them with as much gold as they want, if they can help me just a little, spices and silks, as much as their excellencies can load, and MASTIC (emphasis added by Columbus himself) which until now has only been discovered on the island of Chios.” Columbus concluded that “If the value of spices was calculated by their weight in gold, the value of mastic should be calculated by its weight in gold.”
The fortified, medieval mastic villages that we see today – there are twenty in all – are unique in the whole of Greece. They were built for a special purpose; to protect from marauding pirates and would-be mastic thieves. Guards were on constant watch throughout the countryside and no-one was permitted to enter the village without an escort. The village of Mesta is a perfect example of 14th and 15th century defensive architecture. Its fortified walls with their four gateways all have defense towers and the labyrinthine streets are designed to occasionally finish in dead ends to confuse and trap enemies. The vaulted tunnels and narrow archways served to double purpose of protecting the buildings during earthquakes an to aid in escape routes over the rooftops. When the Turks took over the island, mastic was a vital part of the economy and the villages came under the protection of the Valide Sultan – the Sultan’s mother. Away from the prying eyes of visitors, small ports were built near to the villages that allowed the mastic to leave the island for Turkey unseen. The people working on the production of mastic were given special privileges. No unauthorized person was allowed there during the harvest months of July- September. Punishment would mean imprisonment, or if caught with illegal mastic, death. The Turks referred to Chios as “the resin isle” and it is well known that the women of the harem chewed on “the little nuggets” as we would chew chewing gum. In 1674, Father Jacques-Paul Babin, a visiting priest to Chios and Turkey, commented that “when any company of women meet in Turkey, some mastic is brought to them on a server, and each taking a little, they are chewing and spitting most of the time. It is comical to see the old women roll it around in their gums; the effects which they find by it are; that it carries away the phlegm and prevents the aching of teeth, and causes a sweet breath.” Mastic gum can be chewed for hours. It doesn’t disintegrate and still retains its flavour.
Mastic is often used in cooking and can be added to breads and biscuits. In Turkey, a little is sometimes added to milk puddings and even loukoumathes – fried doughnuts dripping with honey and cinnamon. It is also one of the vital ingredients for dondurma – Turkish ice-cream, the other distinct ingredient being salepi. It has a distinct sweet smelling taste and smell somewhat reminiscent of incense and when used in food always imparts a pleasant aroma. Beware, a little goes a long way. I once had the misfortune to cook a batch of biscuits (recipe from Chios) and added too much. When I opened the oven door, the house was engulfed in such an intense aroma that if I closed my eyes I would have sworn I had entered a Byzantine church.
As part of my research for The Embroiderer, I spent two weeks in Chios, four days of which were spent in Mesta. When the time came to leave the village, I regretted never actually seeing anyone gather the “tears” as the mastic gatherers begin their work at five-o’clock in the morning in order to get their work done before the sun is at its hottest. But as luck would have it, as I left the village heading north, I saw a tractor on the road and an elderly couple sitting among the trees. I couldn’t believe my luck. Stopping the car some metres away, I got out and approached them. Getting up from amongst the leaves, their beaming smiles welcomed me. What follows is an excerpt from notes made later that day.
“When I ask if they can show me how they gather the “tears’, they are more than delighted. After showing me a small hammer-like instrument – the only tool needed – the man begins to cut a deep gash approximately five centimetres long, diagonally along the trunk of a very old and gnarled tree already covered in gashes. Some of the gashes were quite old and had healed over. Others were freshly cut with the “tears” still freely flowing. The new cut immediately reveals an opaque white substance which begins to ooze out and becomes translucent on contact with the air. The gum is allowed to drop onto the ground and harden a little. I touch a piece oozing from the cut. It is soft and sticky in the morning sun. It takes ages to get it off my finger. I am told that it is best left on the ground until it hardens and then it is scooped up along with the leaves and twigs. These are put into a bucket which is later taken home and sorted, by which time the mastic droplets will have hardened. The couple generously offer me a piece of their bread and cheese and as I sit on the white ground with them, enveloped in the aroma of mastic, they tell me more about their work. The two trees they are working on are more than a hundred years old. They only harvest between July and early September in order to give the trees time to heal. During the rest of the year, earth is scooped around the base of the tree again. Parts of the tree-trunks have dried mastic on them which have turned to an opaque yellow. The old resin will be scraped away later. A fully grown tree reaches a height of 2-3 metres and yields approximately two hundred grams of mastic a year. Smaller trees, which can take five years to grow, yield around fifty grams. Within this small quantity there are five different qualities. I can understand why it was so highly prized.
They are a handsome couple and I can see that the restorative properties have worked well for them. As I prepare to leave, they scoop up a handful of leaves and resin out of the bucket, clean away the leaves and give me the droplets in a small paper crisp bag lying nearby. “Keep it out of the heat,” they advise as I leave.
Returning to the car, I realize that I would not have been able to do this one hundred years earlier; I would have lost my life – just for a thimble-full of mastic. Temptation gets the better of me and I decide to try a piece. I should have listened to the old couple. Immediately, it becomes gooey and sticks to my teeth. At this point it is so soft that it is impossible to roll it into a ball of chewing gum.
I drive a few kilometres further north and notice the landscape changes. I look back and see that the mastic villages have disappeared back into the gentle, soft grey-green landscape – hidden from the outside-world once more. I can also clearly see the natural cut-off boundary formed thousands of years ago and as I drive away, I know I will not see another mastic bush again throughout the rest of Chios.”
In 1822, a year after The Greek War of Independence breaks out, Chios is still under the Ottoman Empire. This period is a vital part of The Embroiderer” and one of the protagonists, Dimitra, keeps a Damascene box by her side in the vermilion room in which is kept “tears” of mastic. Only a woman of wealth and good standing could have afforded such a luxury. Dimitra always attributed her beauty and longevity to its health-giving properties.