Chios and particularly the mastic-producing villages (Mastichohoria: Mesta, Kallimasia, Pyrgi, Olympoi, etc) located at the south part of the island, claim the worldwide exclusiveness of the culture and production of natural mastic. Despite the fact that the lentisk is self-sown also in other parts of the island, and (as the inhabitants of Mastic Villages say) efforts of transplantation and cultivation have been made in other places of Greece and abroad (in south France), only in this particular region of south Chios its mastic yield is high, possibly due to the particularity of the soil constitution.
This fact has deeply affected the island’s economic, social and cultural history, since the mastic is used as base material in a wide spectrum of products, such as in cooking and pastry, in scented oils and cosmetics, even in pharmaceutical preparations. During the occupation by the Genoans, the “Maona” trading company, which owned the island, awarded special privileges to the Mastic Villages, but also imposed heavy penalties for the illegal trading of mastic. The Ottomans, that succeeded them, followed the same policy. It is also said that the Sultan ransomed all prisoners coming from the Mastic Villages after the massacre of Chios (1822) and resettled them on the island to assure that the production of this precious product would not cease.
One of the major centres of transit was Constantinople, from where the mastic was transported to the East as well as to the Arab countries. The mastic production constituted an additional income of the rural families possessing a piece of land. The collection and processing of mastic resin was a family, and mainly women’s, business. Today, Chios exports large quantities of mastic to the eastern and western markets. The price of mastic has been considerably increased, compared to the past, and although, nor today are there farmers working exclusively in this field, the boost to the development of mastic trade by the Union of Chios Mastic Producers has enhanced their income.
Mastic resin comes from the trunk of the mastic tree. A productive tree can provide 200 to 500 grammars the most, while its yield depends also on its age. The procedure is laborious and hard, because these trees are very sensitive and require all-year care. The cultivation works begin in autumn, and during the winter the lentisk field is ploughed and cleared from bushes and weeds to be well conserved until spring. In May, they start “scraping the lentisk”, that is, clearing the mastic tree trunks and removing the small branches. This procedure is completed gradually for all trees, with the use of a tool called amnia, until the beginning of July. The lentisk is a short shrub. Cultivators try to give an umbrella shape to its foliage, in order to maintain the moisture under it. In this way the roots do not go dry.
Early in July, they remove the small branches and weeds in order for the area under the tree to be clean and levelled. Then this area, called “table”, is swept with an improvised broom (called godora) made of bushes such as thyme, sage etc. Afterwards, they cover the “table” with white earth (homatiasma), found in nearby caves so that the mastic that will drop from the tree trunk will stay clean and free from leaves, stones or dark earth. Otherwise, it will lose its transparency and clearness.
The first incisions (kenties) are made just afterwards. This procedure is difficult, since the incisions of the trunks from where the mastic will drip should follow the routes of the tree’s “live veins” that “carry the mastic sap up”, and mastic producers work bent over, because of the short height of the trunks. The incisions are made every three-four days at the same trees, seven to eight times. Their number depends on the size of the tree. Usually, they start with four-five incisions at the lower part of the tree, then five-six incisions higher and another six-seven even higher, reaching the branches. The technique passes on from one generation to the next. The tool they used in the past was called kentitiri.
At first, the mastic sap is thick and looks like melted wax but as soon as it falls on the “table” it hardens and small white crystals are formed. The best parts are the “pies”, that is, the big thick white accumulations. On the contrary, when the mastic is black (anapinada) due to the dirt of dark earth, it is considered of low quality, and its price is equally low. The incisions stop on 15th August and collection starts after fifteen more days in order for the mastic to have been dried and matured. In September, first they collect the big pieces, the “pies”, and then the smaller ones, with a tool like a spatula for small surfaces (kamotiri). In the past, they placed the pieces of mastic in special traditional mastic baskets (kafkia). Then the cleaning phase starts. Women used to gather in groups and after putting an amount of mastic into a pan, they threw away the big stones and sieved the mastic to remove the earth and the smaller stones. Finally, they washed it in the sea or more recently in a trough with green soap.
- Interview with Maria Zervoudi [mastic producer], with the participation of Giorgos Moustridis [collector of tools and expert on mastic procedure] and Theodosis Moustridis [old mastic producer, father of Giorgos Moustridis], in mastic trees of Mesta, Chios, 11/07/2005
- Interview with Giorgos Moustridis [Mastic producer] in Chios, 11/07/2005