Mastiha for enhancing your mind and good spirit – sailing east in the Aegean and beyond…

Academia, Associations, Communication, Environment, Food and Drink, Health and Safety, Insight — By on July 19, 2016 at 2:31 PM

product_mastixaTime and gain we have mentioned the rich and unique greek soil. Many times we have mentioned about the Mastiha of Chios, the most unique and blessed of all products Greece offers the world.  Mary Whittow

In the very informative article that follows, Mary Whittow (pictured on the right) from the University of Oxford, explains:

Mastiha through the ages

Introduction

Mastic resin, more commonly known as ‘mastiha’, is harvested and collected as a small white crystal. At first it is rather simple and not that exciting, but here you are mistaken. These small rocks not only have an extensive history, dating back to the Classical period, but they also have phenomenal properties ranging from the cosmetics industry to food. Even New York has discovered the mastiha craze! The resin is taken from trees in southern Chios, in the Eastern Mediterranean, which seeps out of the bark and falls to the ground to form sold crystals, otherwise known as tears to the locals as it drips in clear liquid from the trunk. Once dried, these crystals are then collected by hand and cleaned, ready for use.

Mastiha History

Chios’ fame is almost entirely down to the production of mastiha, and has often been called the ‘mastic island’ by some. By the 1300s its revenue even totalled a fifth of the whole of the Byzantine Empire, [1] which was astonishing for a small Mediterranean island at this point. Nevertheless, with fame came a certain amount of danger too. Over the centuries, Chios was furiously fought over, as rulers vied for their part in its growing economy. In the Byzantine period, the Italians were pushing their way in, with the Venetians in 1204 and then Genoa in 1261, who was granted ‘commercial stores’ on the island, later becoming the dominant masters for the following two centuries.[2] Along with the great powers of the Mediterranean, Chios also faced trouble from pirates, as they scoured the Aegean for loot. Piracy in this era was already a profession, and in 1292 Chios was invaded by the fearful Caecilian Rogero Lourias, who stole two galleys worth of mastiha and other precious materials, such as silk, wine and salt.[3] Picture a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean and you are almost there! This was the gold of the Eastern Mediterranean and was a highly valuable prize.

1 (9) (1)As mastiha production increased and expanded throughout the 14th century a company called Maona was put in charge under the leadership of the Genoese. It brought in military enforcements and strict regulations for the island to protect the cherished resin and keep control of the islanders. In particular, the Maonese made sure that the production was kept safe by building the famous mastiha villages, known as ‘Mastihohoria.’ These were fortified villages built far away from the sea and totally out of sight from nosy competitors and pirates. They were made of stone with the outer set of houses forming a defensive wall as a perimeter with no windows or doors. At each corner there stood a watchtower with one main tower in the middle.[4] Each night, the single door to the village was shut at sunset, bolting its inhabitants inside. This way of life seems odd, but it does show how highly valued the mastiha resin was at this time.[5] Maona was not going to give it up without a fight! However it was not all about keeping the inhabitants safe, as Maona was primarily there for high production and low costs, making sure that tight rules were adhered to and expectations were met. The growers were not allowed to keep any resin for themselves, and could only harvest it under the jurisdiction of Podestà, the Italian high officials and chief magistrates. If a mastiha producer sold any for his own benefit, or kept any bark or sap, he would be punished like a criminal. Moreover, if they did not manage to harvest the right amount in a year, adding up to the expected quota, they would be fined the equivalent of double the price of mastiha, [6] so pretty harshly! Life was rigid and the line had to be toed, but the result was a booming business for Chios with the mastiha resin known worldwide by the 14th century.

The fame of Chios reached the ears of Christopher Columbus who visited the island between 1474 and 1475, and wrote about the special properties of mastiha and its high value in his diary, even wanting to bring some back as a present for the queen. He wrote that the mastiha resin earned more than fifty thousand ducats a year (a gold or silver coin used in Europe during the medieval period), which in contemporary figures is equal to two million dollars, something well worth fighting for. However I hope in those days it was not the same as giving her majesty a packet of gum.

The Maonese lasted some time, but soon came the domination of Piali Pasha, who was an Ottoman admiral.  He arrived at Chios with three hundred ships and a blanket protection from the Sultan, granting him the ability to trade both on land and at sea. He looted the island and left five hundred of his men and ten ships to keep guard. With the characteristic stubbornness of most rulers, he decided to swap the Maonese flag for his own, self-appointing himself as dominant ruler of the island.[7] Under his command, the mastiha producers were granted certain privileges, which elevated them to a more senior status, ensuring the stability of the Chian economy under Sultan Selim II’s rule. The laws passed in 1567 were issued on an ahdname, believed to come from the prophet Mohammed himself. The mastiha villagers and producers were independent from the rest of the island inhabitants, able to pay less tax, wear specific clothing and practice their own religion without limitation. They were even allowed to converse and trade with people in Europe who were enemies of the Sultan, bringing a greater economy and trade network to the business. The greatest privilege given was that each year, five elders from the villages were chosen to judge all civic cases on the island.[8] In return, the Sultan kept all the mastiha for his own financial benefit disallowing any to be sold on an individual basis.

Calamity and Rejuvenation

Despite this seemingly good existence of the islanders and peaceful ruling, disaster struck in 1822 when the Ottomans massacred the island. In total, 42, 000 people were killed, 52, 000 were captured and 23, 000 were spared, with only 2, 000 left on the island.[9] In 1840 a mandate was passed by the Sultan Abdul Metzit, which granted free trade of mastiha and liberty to sell the product.[10] However in 1881 an earthquake hit, destroying many of the villages and surrounding areas. Fortunately, it did not harm the southwest section, where the majority of the growing took place, but out of the 24 villages, only Mesta, Pirgi, Olimpi, Kalamoti and Patrika were mainly unharmed and in total, 11, 000 people were killed. This calamity was devastating for the island community, but the mastiha production did not die out. In 1912, Chios was finally liberated from the Ottomans on 12th November, and Chios was granted its freedom.[11]

Since 1939, the leading force behind Chios Mastiha has been the Chios Mastiha Growers Association, with its first president, Dr. G. Stagoulis. Their aim was to produce a sustainable and long-term system to protect and magnify the production of mastiha. In just one year, they had tripled the growers’ wage on the island, and they still continue to work tirelessly on the project today. In 1997 Chios Mastiha was recognised by the EU as a PDO (Protected Designation Origin), and in 2008 it was introduced into the Alternative Market of the Athens Stock Exchange.[12] On 11th June 2016, the Chios Mastiha Museum was opened in the southern part of the island, right next to the largest and most productive of the 24 villages, Pirgi. Visitors are encouraged to learn all about the history, cultivation, and production of the tree, ending their tour with the chance to see the plantation for themselves, and touch the ancient plants.[13] This organisation has been a vital component for Chios mastiha, making sure that consumption reached the level of production after the Second World War in 1958 and keeping it at a sustainable and profitable level. Their concern and hard word has totally transformed the industry.

ENOSIS; mastiha liquor

ENOSIS; mastiha liquor

Uses of Mastiha

But why was this resin so exciting? What made people fight tooth and nail to get their hands on it? Why is it valued almost as highly today as it was in the 13th century? One answer lies in some of our most ancient sources, which testify to the powerful medical properties of the resin. Dioscurides (AD. 1) in De Materia Medica, 1.42.1, swears by its healing powers when used as an oil and when mashed up and boiled with the bark, leaves and fruits. He even claims that it helps with bleeding and diarrhoea. Hippocrates also assures people that mastiha is good for ‘hysteric passions, ’ (Galen, On Antidotes, II, p. 431). On top of this, mastiha was made into a poultice for arthritis, and also chewed as a gum to help clean teeth and freshen breath.[14] In 2015, it was finally recognised as a natural medicine.[15] During the Turkish occupation, it was used in foods, as it is famed for its digestive qualities as well as its aromatic taste.[16] People would mix it with flour to make mastiha bread, using the mastiha as a binding agent as well as flavouring. In Egypt it was used in their water to add flavour and there are even rumours that mastiha was thought of as an aphrodisiac, which is still held to be true in Morocco today. Hopefully this has been added to the Chios guidebooks!

The list goes on with mastiha thought to be an antiseptic, good for headaches, stomach ulcers, tooth decay, gum disease, respiration and gout as well as an all-round preventative. In 1673 Johann Wansleben said that if you took three to four grains a day, it would even help strengthen the heart.[17] In the 1800s, the finest mastiha was sent to the palace in Constantinople, so fit for a king any day. Today, mastiha’s adhesive qualities have enabled it to be used in industry too, in the manufacture of plasters, rubber, elastic, synthetic leather, plastic, linseed oil, lacquers and paint. It is also used in cosmetics, as a drink and in pharmaceuticals. But…how can one product be so powerful, a cure for many common ailments, edible and therapeutic all at once? It seems to bring a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘popping pills’! Why aren’t we taking them every day? Well perhaps this is the answer…

Greece’s new superfood?

If you think I am being far-fetched, allow me to divulge a little secret about this magical substance. Recent studies have even exploring the idea of using mastiha to help reduce cholesterol in the blood, because it is thought to protect against ‘oxidation of low-density lipoprotein.’[18] This does not mean a huge amount to me, but in short, if we consume mastiha in our diets, it is supposed to keep down bad levels of cholesterol and glucose in our blood. A survey carried out and recorded in an article with the catchy title, ‘Mastic Lowers Cholesterol and Glucose levels, ’[19] there seems to be positive results. Here they tested people’s levels of cholesterol after eight weeks of eating mastiha daily. Those who were given the highest level of mastiha recorded the biggest change, with levels of cholesterol significantly lower, especially in people who were overweight. Is this the new super drug on the market? Why not just swallow a few crystals every day with your morning coffee rather than some fad diet! Sounds great doesn’t it? I am certainly impressed by these special qualities of mastiha resin, and I do not doubt that they are beneficial to our health, but I also think a word of caution ought to be issued. Sure, try something new, but why not reap the rewards in a more enjoyable way?

PIRGIMastiha today, still worth the hype?

In word one: ‘yes’ it is definitely worth the hype! Most recently the mastiha craze has even hit the Big Apple.  In a review by Max Falkowitz, editor of Serious Eats: New York, he reveals how this came about. A group of Turks had the idea to bring over their local form of ice cream to NY City. Known as Dondurma, it is a far stickier version of what we would call ice cream, as it uses mastiha as a binding agent, just as they do in traditional Middle Eastern food. The new pop up ice cream parlour is called Victory Garden, and situated on 31 Carmine Street, NY, 10014. The ice cream is flavoured with mastiha and mahlab, which is ground up cherry stones, and seems to have passers by “hooked” after just a few tentative licks.[20] Max encourages his readers to look past the slightly odd first mouthful, and the “melted mozzarella” texture, and to enjoy the “mouth-cooling” taste of the mastiha combined with the “bittersweet sour cherry…and subtle fruity tones” of the mahlab. It may be an acquired taste, but he sticks to his guns and says it’s well worth trying! Ice cream and cocktails anyone?

The history and wealth of information that comes from simply thinking about the word ‘Mastiha’ is huge. Not only has it survived two world wars, an earthquake, a massacre, and several rulers, but it has also survived the world today. Everyone wants the new best thing, be it for health, taste buds or the body, and mastiha seems to be the answer. With only sugar, water and mastiha, the Mastiha liqueur is natural, simple and very refreshing. So why not sit back, relax and add some tonic and ice. Leave the science to the doctors next time you are feeling poorly!



[1] C. Belles, Mastiha Island, 2005, p.

[2] C. Belles, 2005, p. 57.

[3] C. Belles, 2005, p. 56.

[4] http://www.gummastic.gr/en/mastihavillages/information

[5] C. Belles, 2005, p. 109.

[6] C. Belles, 2005, p. 108.

[7] C. Belles, 2005, p. 156.

[8] C. Belles, 2005, pp. 162-4

[9] C. Belles, 2005, p. 175.

[10] C. Belles, 2005, p. 177.

[11] C. Belles, 2005, p. 191.

[12] http://www.gummastic.gr/en/company/history.

[13] https://www.facebook.com/elmamastiha.

[14] Y. Perrikos, Chios Mastic, pp. 16-17.

[15] http://www.gummastic.gr/en/company/history.

[16] Ph. Argentis & S. Kiriakidis, Chios according to geographers and travellers, p. 1355

[17] C. Belles, 2005, p. 195.

[18] C. Belles, 2005, p. 221.

[19] http://www.life-enhancement.com/magazine/article/3496-mastic-lowers-cholesterol-and-glucose-levels.

[20] http://newyork.seriouseats.com/2012/07/daily-scoop-mahlab-mastic-and-chocolate-choco.html.

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Mastiha World

 For more information, viewers can contact:
E:  info@mastihaworld.co.uk        T:  07769 933328

 

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