Mastiha (Greek: Μαστίχα Χίου) is the famous and unique product of the Chios island. It is the fifth largest Greek island, located in the North-East Aegean Sea and very close to the Asia Minor coast.
Since 1997, Chios Mastiha has been protected by the European Union as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product.
The origin of Mastiha
The Mastiha (Mastic) grows all over the Mediterranean. But, the special variety tree (Pistacia lentiscus) grows only in the south of Chios island, in 24 villages. They are also called „Mastihohoria“, which means „Mastiha villages“.
The founding of Mastiha villages dates back to the Byzantine era. But the Genoans set up the first company for the exploitation of mastic during their rule (1346-1566).
According to the tradition, Mastic trees began to „shed the tears“, when the Romans took St. Isidore of Chios to be executed, in 251 AD, because he was Christian. He was in agonizing pain and wept all the way along the road. His tears fell on the earth and became fragrant mastic. And this is one of the reasons why mastic is also called „The Tears of Chios“.
Scarce rain, lots of sun and quartz soil texture are the perfect environment for the successful production of Mastic.
One story says that scientists have made an experiment. They brought a mastic tree to the United States and artificially created conditions like those in Chios. The tree was alive, but there was no fruit!
Production of Mastiha
The Mastiha tree is an evergreen shrub. It grows very slowly and it is about 2-3 meters high. Only this variety produces natural ivory-coloured resin or mastic, with specific flavour and aroma.
Mastic production is a complicated and laborious process. The trees are pruned and fertilized every winter.
They begin producing mastic when they are about five-seven years old. Then the ground beneath the trees clears and covers with white clay.
The Mastic is contained in the bark, not in the wood. So, during the summer, they make multiple incisions in the branches of the three on specific spots. And the resin starts to flow.
The resin speedily exudes and hardens into oval drops. After two weeks it is ready to be collected.
The collection begins in the middle of August and lasts for about a month. The mastic drops are manually washed, cleaned and sorted, piece by piece. After that, mastic is put onto the wooden boxes and dried in cold places.
The mastic drops are transparent, with a glassy fracture. Their form is like roundish teardrops about the size of peas.
Mastic uses in ancient times
In ancient times Mastic was used because of its properties that are beneficial to human health.
Hippocrates used it for the prevention of digestive problems, colds and as a breath freshener. Roman emperors used mastic along with honey, pepper, and egg in the spiced wine. Digestive liqueurs made with grapes were known as Greek elixirs.
Also, Mastiha was used as the first natural chewing gum to clean the teeth and freshen the breath in the Roman era and during the Middle Ages. It was even used in cosmetology and as a spice during the Ottoman rule as well.
Since mastic was so important as a product, the villages where mastiha was grown were spared during the famous Chios Massacre in 1822. It was the time of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman rule of Chios.
As I have mentioned before, mastiha is produced in 24 villages in the southern part of Chios Island.
This Mastihochoria region consists of fortified villages built in the 14th century during the Genovese rule. They were built in the inner region of the island, surrounded by high walls as defence from the Arabic pirates. The streets of these medieval villages are narrow and look like a labyrinth. Usually, there is a church and a tower in the centre. Even today houses are small, with one or two floors. They were built close to each other and connected with arches and walkways. This defensive system allowed locals to attack the invaders and to protect themselves.
The most famous villages among them are Armolia, Pyrgi, Olimpy, and Mesta.
During our one-day excursion, first, we visited Armolia village, located about 20 kilometres from the centre of Chios town. Besides mastiha, it is known for the tradition of making pottery. Here you can find colourfully decorated pottery items, such as bowls, vases, pitchers, and cups, as the perfect souvenir from Chios. In Armolia village we saw mastiha trees and mastiha drops on the ground, and then, continued to another village, Pyrgi.
Pyrgi is located about 25 km from Chios town. It is believed that Pyrgi is a medieval settlement, built around the 10th century. For centuries it has been the seat of the Mastic producers community.
Pyrgi is the biggest and the most fascinating village on the island. Well, I can say that I have never seen anything similar! All houses and buildings are painted white. But all of them are decorated with black and grey geometrical shapes, called “xysta“, making Pyrgi “the painted village“.
These decorative motives were influenced by Italian architecture during the Genovese rule. Also, it is believed that Christopher Columbus lived some time in Chios.
As a matter of fact, the churches are also decorated with these patterns! So, in the central square of Pyrgi, surrounded by little cafes, there is the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin from 1694.
Another decorated church is Theotoukou, erected in 1680.
The third church hidden between the walls is the Church of Agioi Apostoloi. It is a copy of Nea Moni, the famous monastery in Chios, probably built during the 13th century in the Byzantine style.
In a word, Pyrgi is a stunning and unique Greek village. It was so pleasant walking along its narrow stone-paved streets and looking at those decorated facades with flowers and sun-dried tomatoes.
After the amazing coloured Pyrgi village, we came to Mesta, located about 35 km southwest of Chios town.
Well, it is the best-preserved fortified village from Byzantine time. All houses were made of stone and connected with arches, to protect locals against the attacks of pirates and Turks. The walls of the houses are actually the outer walls of the village, while the doors and windows are facing the interior of the village.
While walking around the labyrinth of narrow and cobblestone alleys, you have that feeling that time has stopped.
There is a little square in the centre with a few cafes and the new Church of Megalos Taksiarhis. This is the largest church in Chios, built in the middle of the 19th century, where the castle tower from the Byzantine era stood.
Another interesting mastiha village is Olympi.
But we just passed by and visited the famous Olympi cave. It is full of stalactites and stalagmites, and it is still being explored.
We finished our mastiha tour on the popular Mavra Volia beach. It is interesting beach with cold water and hot black pebbles, the result of a volcano eruption. You can read more about this stunning cave and beach in one of the following posts.
But now, let’s talk more about the benefits of mastiha.
Mastic uses today
The entire production and cleaning process of Chios Mastiha is free of all chemicals and additives. In fact, this process has remained unchanged over the centuries.
Scientific research has shown that Mastiha resin has anti-oxidant, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Mastic is used in the production of a wide range of products and exported throughout the world.
For example, It is a raw material in food products, including baked goods, sweets, ice cream, chocolate, chewing gum, candy, Turkish delight, milk products, pasta, sauces, etc. It is also used as an ingredient for preparing various kinds of drinks, tea, coffee, liquor, wine and popular ouzo.
Additionally, Mastiha is an ingredient of dietary supplements, oral hygiene products, surgical sutures, compresses burns, dental floss, soap, cosmetics. It is used as an ingredient for producing scented candles, essential oils, artists’ varnishes, and resin-based adhesives as well. In a word, very impressive, isn’t it?
The Mastiha project
The Mastiha Project is an effort to promote Mastiha’s uniqueness to the public worldwide.
This project started in 2016 on Chios, at the initiative of Dimitris Georgoulis, the owner of the OZ cocktail bar, and his team.
In a series of short videos taken as part of this project, you can learn more about mastic. More precisely, about its history, added to other products and how it is used in various ways. You can watch videos about mastic here. This project aims to make people aware of natural mastic.
One of the most popular presentations of the project for barmen was on 7th November 2017, during the Athens Bar Show 2017.
Mastic liqueur and cocktails
Traditionally Mastic liqueur is served in cold shots, usually as a digestif after a meal.
So, if you visit Chios, come and enjoy OZ cocktails, in the centre of Chios town.
Try the cocktails with Mastic.
Some of them are Mastic Sour, Go Vegan, Bitter tear, Black Peddles, TnT (Mastic Tear n Tonic).
Or, you can taste these cocktails in the OZ Salad basket.
It is a modern mobile cocktail bar that is ready to travel all over Greece!
OZ Salad basket is also a major means of promoting the Mastiha project.
And the promotion of mastic as an ingredient or raw material in the dining and bar area as well.
Maybe you are planning to get married in the Agios Isidoros chapel in Chios? So, OZ Bar restaurant can organise for you an unforgettable wedding with mastiha cocktails and delicious greek dishes.
Well, Mastiha is a 100% natural product and rare tree resin. The specific micro-climate conditions, natural environment, and traditional cultivation have remained unchanged throughout the centuries. So this is the combination that creates Mastiha.
In a word, everything that makes Mastiha such a special and unique product in the whole world.