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What is Mastiha?

A significant part of the cultural heritage of the Greek island of Χίος ("Xios" or "Chios", pronounced Hee-os"), μαστίχα (mastiha῾) or 'mastic' is a resin cultivated from the sap of the mastic tree which is native to the island.

Mastiha trees growing on the island of Xios.

The beautiful island of Xios is famous for being the home of and main producer of mastiha, a product which is used throughout Greece, Cyprus, and the Middle East. Mastiha starts as a semi-transparent sap that, when solidified, transforms into slightly yellowish tear-drop-shaped nuggets. The taste of mastiha is unique and one-of-a-kind; the best way I can describe it is as a woody, licorice-like flavour.

Harvesting mastiha is as much of a science as it is a form of art. The ground below the trees is often whitewashed with bright, white limestone (see photograph below) to make it easier to spot the drippings. Then, small incisions are made into the tree so as to enable the sap to flow more easily. The mastiha trees begin to secrete the sap, which drips down the side of the tree, eventually drying out and solidifying into the small nuggets, most of which which are then harvested at the bottom of the tree (if you look closely at the right photograph below, you can see what the nuggets look like when they are harvested).

The English word 'masticate' is said to have the same origin as the Greek word mastiha.

Educational video about mastiha production.

Mastiha & Xios

Records indicate that mastiha has been harvested in Greece for more than 2,500 years - in other words, it's been an important part of the country's heritage since ancient times! Hippocrates himself was one of the first to write about this ingredient. In 1997, Xios mastiha started being characterized as a 'Product of Protected Designation of Origin' (PDO) by the European Union. Today, there are more than 20 μαστιχοχώρια ("mastichochoria" or "mastic villages") on the island that are officially characterized as "traditional or preserved settlements" for mastiha: Agios Georgios, Armolia, Vavyli, Vessa, Vouno, Elata, Exo Didyma, Tholopotami, Thymiana, Kalamoti, Kallimasia, Katarraktis Lithi, Mesa Didyma, Mesta, Myrmigi, Nenita, Nechori, Olympi, Pagida, Patrika, Pyrgi and Flatsia.

The island's mastic production is controlled by a co-operative called the Chios Gum Mastic Grower's Association (CGMGA; Ένωση Μαστιχοπαραγωγών Χίου in Greek) thus enabling organized and trustworthy production of the resin. The island also boasts a modern Mastic Museum, where visitors can learn about the history, significance, and cultivation of this plant. In fact, mastiha is so vital to Xios that the Turkish name for Xios, Sakız Adası, translates to mean 'gum island'!

Mastiha Significance

Although the product itself is small, the impact it has on Greece is immense. The cultural significance of mastiha extends well beyond its commercial value, embodying the history, traditions, and identity of Greece while connecting consumers to a one-of-a-kind cultural experience impossible to be replicated elsewhere. Years and years ago, the roads the farmers once walked on to get to the tree groves have since become paved as roads still used today. Throughout numerous different rulers of the land, mastiha cultivation has not only prevailed, but has also thrived.

The protection and promotion of mastiha production contributes in a deeply meaningful way to the cultural diversity and heritage of Greece while simultaneously preserving tradition, reflecting a strong sense of place, and serving as an ambassador of Greek culinary traditions on the global stage. It is a great source of pride for not only the people of Xios, but for Greeks in general. There is even a Patron Saint of the mastic trees - Saint Isidoros (Άγιος Ισίδωρος), who is honored on the 14th of May each year.

Mastiha Usage

The product can be sold whole (whole nuggets) or ground up into a white powder. Its primary uses include as a flavouring in cooking and baking and as a fragrant, natural additive to beauty, cosmetic, and personal hygiene products like hand lotions, face creams, toothpaste, hair serums, or soap. It can also be used in flavouring alcohol or liqueurs as well as in paints and varnishes.

This natural ingredient is commonly used in Eastern Mediterranean cuisine including desserts, pastries, pudding, candy, preserves, liqueurs, and breads. It can be added to beverages as a flavouring and is even sold as a gum. Most recipes for τσουρέκια (tsourekia) will call for mastiha as one of the ingredients. If you visit Xios, don't be surprised to find fun, mastiha-flavoured cocktails like a mastiha mojito! If you want to try a wide variety of products with mastiha, I highly recommend browsing Mastiha Shop. They sell some really innovative products and gifts all themed around mastiha. Although I don't particularly like the flavour of mastiha, I did love using all the wonderful products with mastiha infused into them - two of my favorites were the mastiha toothpaste, which I felt made my mouth taste so fresh after brushing, and the mastiha hand lotion (both pictured below).

Variety of mastiha products.

Let me know your thoughts on this unique piece of Greek cultural heritage - it's fascinating to see what mastiha means to different people!


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