The mastic gum of Chios, Greece

Living in one of the 24 mastic gum (mastiha) producing villages of Southern Chios, I have been exposed to the cultivation of mastiha since I first came here. Almost everyone in my village is involved in the production of this magical resin, valuable for many uses: for medicines, cosmetics, art paints and varnishes, sweets, etc.

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Mastic trees

It was always cultivated on the island but started becoming known in the 10th century by travellers visiting Chios. The trade became more organized in the 14th century.

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The mastic tree/bush (skinos, Pistacia Lentiscus var. Chia) grows all over Chios, also all over the Mediterranean area, but only produces mastic gum in the southern part of Chios. It is one of the strongest plants, it can live without water, in bad soil, and lasts for many years. The mastiha production is worthwhile from about the 5th year of the life of the plant and reaches its best at around the 15th year. It can live up to 100 years. A mature tree produces about 200 grams per year.

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White soil under mastic trees

The cultivation of mastiha starts around May-June and ends in September-October, depending on the weather. First, they prepare and clean the area under each tree, then spread a white soil on that area so that the drops (the tears) of resin falling are kept clean. Next, with a special sharp and pointed tool, they “wound” the tree by making incisions on the trunk and the branches (see the beautiful film at the end of this post).

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Photo at the Chios Mastic Museum

After the mastiha has fallen on the ground, and become hard, it is collected very early in the morning, while it is still cool and the resin remains hard. Then they “bring it in”, to the village, where they continue with the “cleaning” of it. This involves sifting it through different sizes of sieves to clean it from the soil and leaves.

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Sieves at the Chios Mastic Museum
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Old photo at the Chios Mastic Museum, 1930-1950
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Photo at the Chios Mastic Museum

Next comes the washing. Some people who live near the sea still go there to wash their mastiha.

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Washing mastic gum in the sea, Southern Chios (2016)
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Sifted and washed mastiha

The final cleaning is done by the women. They usually gather around a round tray (sini), now a round table but still called sini. They clean the resin drops, one by one, by removing any impurities using a needle, work that demands strong eyes and a lot of patience. This takes a few months, depending on the quantity of the harvest. When they finish they take it to the Chios Gum Mastic Growers Association for the final processing.

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Cleaning mastiha, at the Chios Mastic Museum
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Cleaning mastiha (2017)
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Cleaning mastiha

A few days ago I visited the new Chios Mastic Museum, a very modern building housing a very old trade. It is located in the middle of the mastic producing villages and is surrounded by mastic trees where one can follow their cultivation, an open-air museum exhibition.

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Chios Mastic Museum
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Chios Mastic Museum

“The aim of the Chios Mastic Museum is to highlight the production history of the cultivation and processing of mastic, also incorporating it to the cultural landscape of Chios. Through the inclusion of traditional mastic cultivation in the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2014, the emphasis is on the timelessness and the sustainability of the product of Chios”   {Copied from the Museum’s brochure}

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Old distiller for the production of mastic oil, Chios Mastic Museum
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Old “machinery” for the final processing of mastic gum. Chios Mastic Museum

I am definitely going back. Although mastiha production is part of my fellow villagers lives, there is a lot to see in that museum, details from the past and from the other villages, in a very organized and pleasant way. It made me see that not much has changed since the 19th-20th centuries. Also, there is a nice cafe with views over many mastic trees and the sea far away. Coffee was served with a cookie filled with mastiha cream. There is also a lot of modern art on the walls of some parts of the museum which connects the past with the present.

“The tree we hurt” 1986 ,  English subtitles

This film shows how the mediaeval fortress type villages of Southern Chios, where the mastiha producers lived for centuries (and still do), were around 1985. Not much has changed, they are only better preserved (see my blog post “Start where you are”). In this film you can also see the landscape of Chios, mastic trees, cultivaton, and follow a sweet story with beautiful music.