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Mastic: Little Magic Tear Drops

Updated on February 20, 2014
In cooking, mastic is used in different forms to enhance the smell and flavor of various treats.
In cooking, mastic is used in different forms to enhance the smell and flavor of various treats. | Source

If there was a trademark for the island of Chios, this would certainly be the mastic tree, this unique gift of nature, which in the past has often been a bone of contention between the most powerful of people. Mastic is a naturally aromatic resin secreted in a tear shape off the trunk and major branches of the mastic tree. The mastic tree is an evergreen tree which belongs to the Pistacia family and grows mostly on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean basin. From this family, the specific variety Chia, that can only be cultivated in the southern part of the island of Chios, produces the highest quality and most beneficial natural mastic. The combination of the variety, the soil, the micro-climate and the topology of the terrain is the "secret" to the unique exclusivity, featured only in this small corner of the planet.

Mastic has been used since ancient times, both for its distinctive aroma and for its healing properties. The first known reports about the mastic tree and specifically the mastic of Chios, date back to antiquity and are derived from Herodotus (484-420 B.C.), who mentions that in ancient Greece they used to chew the dried resinous liquid that flows from the bark of the mastic tree. In medical texts of the time we come upon multitude of prescriptions, where the main ingredient is mastic, which was considered beneficial to human health and was attributed to many theraupetic qualities. Usually, it was used in combination with other natural materials to treat a number of diseases.

Production Stages

The cultivation, collection and processing of mastic lasts during the whole year. Since the early days of the shrub's life, mastic producers scour a circular area under each tree. In late June or early July, depending on the weather, they begin to clean these areas with specially designed tools, as this is where the mastic will drop. After cleaning and wiping with a broom made of green branches and leaves from the mastic tree, the area is covered with white fine soil, which helps the mastic drops to dry out easily and stay clear.

The next stage, called “kentima” (meaning embroidery) is where the actual production begins. The producers make multiple small cuts on the tree trunk from which the mastic begins to drip. The number of cuts depends on the age and size of the mastic tree. Starting from the bottom of the trunk, they repeat the process 5-6 times per week slowly cutting towards the top of the mastic tree.

In about 15 days (usually early September) the mastic sets and eventually drops, so producers begin the picking process. The gathering must be completed before rain season, because the rain dazzles and darkens the mastic, while the downpour can drift it away, along with months of labor. Around November they start cleaning the mastic. This is a hard and long process, usually lasting the whole of winter, as they need to remove all leaves, sticks, stones and dust. Cleaning is usually done at home by groups of women, that gather up to help each other. When they are done, they put it in large pans and wash it with water and soap to make it shiny like a diamond. Finally, they let it to naturally dry in a cool place and is handed over to local cooperatives.

The last stage of mastic's process is done at the Mastic Producers' Union of Chios, where the mastic drops are sorted depending on their size and purity. Part of it is sold as a raw natural product and the rest is used for other mastic-based products, such as gum, mastic oil, creams, liquers and more.

Mastic resin forming its characteristic tear drop
Mastic resin forming its characteristic tear drop | Source

Health benefits

Due to the strong action of the antiflegmonodous oleanolic acid, mastic acts vulnerary lysing inflammation of specific organs, such as periodontitis, oesophagitis, gastritis, duodenal ulcer and even colitis. Also prevents stagnation and its symptoms, like indigestion or flatulence. Additionally, digestion is facilitated by reflex secretion of saliva and gastric juice by chewing mastic gum. Moreover, mastic is still used today for softening tumors in the liver, breast, parotid, spleen, stomach and the esophagus, to name a few and it also considered to be analgesic, antitussive, orexigenic, aphrodisiac, astringent, erythropoiesis, diuretic, expectorant and haemostatic. Mastic is mentioned as the traditional antidote against various diseases, amongst them abscesses, acne, cancer, ulcers and tumors, sluggishness and atherosclerosis.

Recent medical studies of the University of Nottingham have proven that even in minimal doses (1mg daily for 2 weeks), the mastic can heal peptic ulcers caused by the bacterium Helicobacter Pylori, because of its antimicrobial action, while is also has a positive effect on liver function and activates detoxifying activity. This way, cholesterol levels are reduced, thus reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Another recent scientific research led to the isolation and identification of ursolic and oleanolic acids and confirmed that many of the pharmacological effects of mastic, such as anticancer, hepatoprotective, anti-inflammatory, antiulcer, antimicrobial (against crowd pathogens as salmonella and staphylococci) anti-hyperlipidemic and anti-viral action may be attributed mainly to ursolic acid, as well as its isomer, oleanolic acid.

The most important health benefits that come from mastic consumption are probably:

  • Reduction of LDL (bad cholesterol) levels and blood pressure
  • Protection of epithelial cells of the respiratory system
  • Increase of levels of HDL (good cholesterol)
  • Antitumor effect (in colon cancer cell apoptosis)
  • Antimicrobial and antibacterial
  • Antiallergic properties (inhibition of platelet aggregation)

Raw mastic drops
Raw mastic drops | Source

Other uses

The second most common use of mastic is associated with the health of the oral cavity. It is very suitable for the production of toothpaste, as it provides fresh breath. It has been shown that the addition of natural mastic paste in toothpaste, wash solutions and breath fresheners leads to strengthening the immune system of the tissue between the teeth and gums, thus acting against the formation of plaque and other periodontal diseases. The process involves the reaction of the components of mastic with the polymorphic nuclei of the cells in the oral cavity, causing the accumulation of white blood cells.

CNN Presenting Mastic

Of particular interest is the fact that the mastic is also used for beauty products. Since the ancient times, it was used as a sunscreen against burns from sun exposure, as well as an essential ingredient in the production of soap and beauty creams. In modern cosmetics, the mastic is used in products made to enhance hair growth and protect from irritation of the scalp. Moreover, cosmetic and fragrance companies use mastic oil to manufacture perfumes and face creams, as the ursolic acid helps restore the structure of collagen and improves the skin's elasticity, thus slowing the aging process.

It's only logical that the tasty, scented mastic is often used in cooking and especially in pastry making, as an additive in a large number of sweets, pastries and aromatic bread, as a complementary flavor to meat and cheese or even as a spice. In the beverage industry, by adding mastic to ouzo and other liquers, the flavors are enhanced while the harmful effects of alcohol are reduced. Finally, mastic works perfectly as a food preservative, as it prevents the growth of harmful microorganisms in them.

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    • AprilGallagher profile image
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      AprilGallagher 3 years ago from Athens, Greece

      It also has a strong flavor but it's very very tasty and, of course, I would use any excuse to go back to Chios! Thanks again for reading :)

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 3 years ago from London

      I'm totally sold! Wonderful and informative hub about the history and uses of mastic. Guess that's another reason to visit the beautiful island of Chios!