MASTIC (Pistacia lentiscus): Origin: native to southern Europe and north Africa with distribution throughout the Mediterranean basin. The mastic or lentisk shrub or small tree has a geographical distribution throughout the states bordering the Mediterranean. The tree is valued for its resin which serves as a well -known culinary ingredient and flavoring agent.

The Gerarde herbal suggests that mastic gum mixed in wine and given to drink stops the bloody flux, stops spitting of blood, and heals the falling sickness; chewing mastic gum is good for the stomach, reduces urge to vomit, increases appetite, comforts the brain and makes a sweet breath. When the gum is infused in rosewater and used as a mouth wash, it fastens loose teeth and comforts the jaws; when the same is applied to a piece of leather or velvet and applied to the temples, this keeps the teeth from falling [out] and reduce pain of toothache. Mastic gum infusions may be used to clean the face and to make the face fair; decoctions of the gum help to heal external ulcers, and when the gum is consumed it can reknit broken bones.

Due to a unique geographical oddity, the mastic resin only can be harvested from the southern portion of the Greek island of Xios, a region known as the Mastichochoria (Μαστιχοχώρια). Elsewhere throughout its distribution the resin remains soft and uncollectable. Xios was known as the source for mastic resin since ancient Greek times. The term, mastic, is gave rise to the English verb, to masticate, or to chew.

What is even more curious is that the lentisk plants where resin is harvested only grow south of a sharply defined line – above which the resin does not harden as well. This so-called mastic line that defines the Mastichochoria determined which island villagers lived or died on in 1821-1822, during the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Turks. It has been estimated that at no less than 23,000 Xians (possibly more) living north of the mastic line were executed in brutal fashion and an additional 60,000 islanders living above the line were taken into captivity and sold as slaves!

It is hard to believe that the geographical distribution of an herbaceous flavoring agent used widely in food preparation and cooking throughout much of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East could have had such a terrible history. During 1821-1822 those islanders living south of the mastic line were identified and separated from the northern islanders, and allowed to live. They were ordered to maintain mastic production to supply the Ottomans in Constantinople for their mastic needs. Most of the islanders living north of the line were murdered or removed from the island – sold as slaves – and disappeared. The population of Xios between 1809-1818 and prior to the island revolt during the War of Independence was estimated at approximately 121,000; investigators suggest that perhaps 5,000 survived the massacres.

During spring and early summer the trunk and major branches of the lentisk tree are cut by harvesters who allow the resin to drip onto the ground where it subsequently is collected as a highly valuable product. Xians today say that the resin drips, that the tree is weeping and the resin drops are known locally as the Tears of Saint Isidore. Two villages on the island, Vessa to the west and Kalamassia to the east – both just south of the line are the ancestral home of the author’s wife’s mother and father – whose ancestors were spared because of an unusual geographical distribution where the lentisk resin hardens. Scholars and casual visitors to the island have asked the question for many decades: why does the resin harden south of the line yet remain soft-stick to the north? Suggestions have included: different micro-climates, soil characteristics, and subtle differences in genetic composition. Further research perhaps could resolve this botanical-cultural-historical mystery.

(Summarized from: Gerarde, 1597, pp. 1243-1244; Argenti, 1932; Grivetti, 2004, pp. 135-145).

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