Friday, September 18, 2009

Aromatic Journey in the Eastern Mediterranean

BY Dorene Petersen, ACHS President

Chios's aromatic mastic gum oozes silently and slowly from the wounds cut into the Mastic tree trunk and forms droplets. Diamond-like droplets fall to the ground and collect beneath the tree. Sparkling with a clear brilliance when the sun hits them, they lie on the ground protected from the soil and debris by a layer of white clay tamped down and flattened to form a table-like surface until they harden and are gathered. The white clay placed under the tree keeps it clean and transparent and is called a trapezi or table. One-thousand tons of kaolin is used per year on Chios to make the white tables under the mastic trees.

My husband Robert Seidel from The Essential Oil Company and I have sailed to the eastern Mediterranean beating into the meltemi wind howling from the northwest to visit the Greek island of Chios. We are on a mission to learn as much as we can about the Chios mastic tree and understand how the now European Union-protected Chios mastic gum is harvested. We have had the great fortune to meet two experts, John Perikos, author of many books including The Chios Gum Mastic, and Vassilis Ballas, who along with his wife Roula moved to Chios from Athens to become a mastic farmer and to provide ecotours of the mastic fields amongst other fascinating things. They have established a company called "masticculture".

John and Vassilis kindly spend time with us and share the mastic gum process and their vast knowledge, much of which is handed down verbally. Vassilis drives us around the island sharing all the secret fascinating places, which are tourist destinations, but so strangely signposted we miss them when driving ourselves. Vassilis takes us out into the mastic fields so we can experience the aromatic trees and the gathering process first hand.

Mastic gum must coagulate before it is collected. There are two major collection dates. One starts around August 15th and the other September 15th. The area under the tree is swept with a regular broom and the entire collection is picked up and put in a sack. The sacks are taken back to the village (originally by donkey, but now in a strange-looking vehicle that resembles a lawn mower on wheels with a truck-bed addition in the rear). They say you can tell a mastic grower by the vehicle and we see a determined old lady, her head wrapped tightly in a white scarf, driving a bunch of what could have been her grandkids through the town of Prygi, one of the quaint medieval mastic villages in one of these converted lawn mowers. The sacks of mastic harvest contain lots of soil and debris, as well as the gum, and they sit until October or November when the mastic gum cleaning process begins. The sacks are emptied into half barrels full of water. The leaves float and are collected with a sieve and put aside. The remaining material is left in the water for three days. Calcium carbonate is added to the water changing the density and the mastic gum floats to the surface. The mastic is skimmed off and sorted. Gum must be refrigerated if it is stored before being delivered to the cooperative, which is in Chios town.

The Cooperative sorts the mastic again. This time women clad in pretty pale-blue smocks with matching hair coverings, and all wearing latex gloves, sit around a large table covered in mastic tears and with speed and dexterity using a small sharp pointed knife blade they cut away impurities and they "pick" through the gum, sorting it by size and color. Here also is a computer which analyzes quality by passing it through a light box that checks the color clarity and can also give an average size for payment. All mastic gum gathered must be sold to the Cooperative. The Cooperative was started in 1938. Mastic producers must sell to the cooperative and even if they want to make their own product they must sell the gum and then buy it back. The Cooperative has stabilized prices and has done a lot to promote Mastic gum with exports of Chios Gum mastic increasing considerable over the years since it was formed. The new chain of Gum Mastica boutiques one of which recently opened in New York is the brainchild of the commercial division of the Cooperative. [...]

You may wonder why mastic produces this wonderful therapeutic gum. The mastic is said to be in the tree to protect it. Vasillis says, "You can take the same tree and plant it in Sweden and it will not produce mastic". The mastic gum from Chios has been granted protection by the European Union with designations such as PDO - Protected Designation of Origin; PGI- Protected Geographical Indication and TSG Traditional Specialty Guaranteed. Only the Chios gum mastic has these designations.

>> To learn more about mastic and download mastic recipes and formulas, click here. Or, go to and click on News and Events.

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