There is a plant that gives a special meaning to the Chian flora: it is the so-called mastic tree, the "Mastic lentisk". This amazing evergreen tree, also called Schinos, is uniquely grown in this island and, although mastic plants grow in many places on the island, it is systematically cultivated in the 21 mastic villages of southern Chios. This is a short bush, with stretched out branches, light or dark ashy color trunk according to the tree's age, and irregular bars like wrinkles on it surface from where the mastic is taken. It needs good weather and a special soil texture such as the one from the chalky rocks of the island, which does not held many moisture in the surface. The average growth of the tree ranges from 6 to 10 feet tall and it begins to produce mastic at the age of 5 to 6 years old. Nowadays mastic is protected by the EEC and guaranteed by the program for the protection of trade names (P.O.P.).
But, why is mastic so significant for Chios' personality? Mastic was the main product responsible for the economic and social development of the Chian people for a long period and up to the present. Today, almost 5.000 families earn a significant portion of their income by cultivating the mastic and exporting it mainly to Arabic countries. In the past, this product was always strongly tied to the history of the island. Its importance made the island a target for conquerors, and therefore many villages were built as fortresses so both ,the mastic and the villagers, were safe from the frequent barbarian-raiding parties besides, during the Genoese and Turkish occupation, Chios gained certain privileges thanks to this product .
When exactly its cultivation became famous is still a mystery. The oldest references to mastic have been traced back to Herodotes in the 5th Century B.C Plinos, Dioskouridis, Galinos, Theofrastos and others mention it as well. The people of Ancient Greece used mastic as the first chewing gum to whiten their teeth and, during the Roman period, toothpicks were made from the mastic tree and its use spread to the harems of the East. But according to tradition, the Schina tree "started to burst into tears" when Saint Isidoros was a martyr from the Romans in 250 A.D., exactly the same time when it is proved that Chians started to continuously cultivate the mastic trees.
The mastic seems to be known from the ancient times because of its healing virtues, for its aroma and its ethereal oils. This natural product has really a plethora of qualities and uses: it is known in the worldwide medical industry because, either as a medicine or as a chewing gum, it absorbs cholesterol, is an antibacterial, acts as an oral antiseptic, aids digestion, tightens the gums, heals wounds and is proven to help to cure stomach ulcers. Apart from these aspects, it is also used in distilleries to produce mastic liqueur and the mastic-flavored ouzo called mastichato. In culinary uses, it can also be enjoyed in baking and in sweets such as biscuits, mastic ice cream, and mastic sweets of the spoon. Finally, in a refined form it is also used as the primary ingredient for toothpaste, shampoos, perfumes, in frankincense, and varnish.
About the cultivation and processing of the mastic today, the technique used is still the famous traditional way: the kendos. This needs many people to work, lots of time and hard work, which alltogether makes the mastic more valuable and of higher quality. The laborious work begins in June and lasts till the end of September, comprising many different steps. For the mastic growers, the day begins early before sunrise and they make their way to the fields with their donkeys in one of the most picturesque scenes ever seen on the island. They are suitably dressed and well equipped in their endeavor, racing against the sun, trying to avoid its presence.
Before any elaboration, the ground around each mastic tree is cleaned and flattened. The trunks are well cleaned, scratched and wiped. Then the ground is covered with white clay during the chomatisma so that the tears will stay clear and dry faster as they fall to the ground, especially in areas that have red dust since the white clay is easily separated from the mastic at the cleaning. Then the producers make an incision in a depth of 2 to 4 centimeters along the tree trunk in the shape of an arch with a kentitiri, a small hammer, which is a very delicate work. The curing of the mastic tree ends before the sun reaches its highest point. When the tears have been coagulated, the mastic laborers use the timitiri to gather every little precious crystal. Back to the village, the narrow streets come alive as the mastic collectors start the tahtarisma, the cleaning of the crystals with soap and cold water, the drying and the scratching of the mastic tears. Lastly, the mastic is taken to special laboratories where it is processed to finally come in the market and in our homes with its great flavor and taste.
However, the magic of mastic does not come from its taste, its uniqueness or its careful cultivation. Without a doubt, its magic relies on the whole social event its elaboration turns into. Just visit the mastic villages during this period and you will feel the history of the island and the warmth of people prevailing in every corner of the village.