Early every morning in the village of Vouno, Elisabeth (pictured above) rises and sorts through what looks, at a distance, like a pile of rocks and twigs. Working in a shed beside her village home, her deft hands, gnarled like the trunks of the trees from which she harvests her treasure, meticulously plucking the sticky resin that drips like angels’ tears from the other detritus that carpets the ground of Chios. Reputed to be the birthplace of Homer, Chios is largely overlooked by the hordes of tourists from continental Europe who descend upon Greece each year. But despite the island’s literary pedigree it is the Pistacia lentiscus variety of gum tree unique to Chios that makes the island famous.
After scraping and scoring the bark, the tree releases resin which subsequently falls to the levelled ground around the tree trunks and is collected by people such as Elisabeth. This local industry is an important part of Chios’ cultural heritage and helps supplement and support earnings. I was told that one kilo of the pure resin can fetch up to 80 Euros. Mastic is used in everything from Mastica liquor, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics as well as instrument and furniture manufacture.
Mastic smuggling also features in Amin Maalouf’s entertaining and erudite novel, Balthasar’s Odyssey in which the “… Turkish authorities only allow it to be used in the Sultan’s harem, where it’s fashionable for the noble ladies to chew it from morn till night to whiten their teeth and perfume their breath. The farmers on the island who grow the precious tree (Pistachio lentiscus), which is very like the pistachio tree we have in Aleppo, have to hand the mastic over for a fixed price, but those who produce a surplus try to sell it on their own account, though if they’re found out they may spend a long time in prison or in the galleys or even be put to death.”
Thankfully for kind and generous Chians like Elisabeth, such penalties no longer exist and mastic can now be enjoyed by a much wider audience than the Sultan’s harem.