I first met Mastiha one evening in a tavern in Microlimano, the smallest of the three historic harbours of Piraeus, just south of Athens.
Although it was a warm Autumn evening, the restaurant had its terrace awning drawn down against the breeze that was rattling the masts of the yachts moored off shore and tossing restless breakers down on the beach.
We were the guests of some local gentlemen who spared nothing in sharing their hospitality. It was a long dinner of numerous courses and as many different accompanying wines. In the sheltered terrace, with the sound of the breeze and the waves, the smell of grilling seafood, the glow of candles, gentle Greek music, lively conversation, it was cosy and convivial. Just when I thought we had sampled almost every possible dish and drink that Greece had to offer, our hosts introduced Mastiha.
It came in a shot glass, in the shape of strong liqueur that slipped down the throat like liquid fire, smouldered in the belly, spread a warm glow through the veins and finally burst into the brain like a meteor.
The essential ingredient of this potent liqueur is an aromatic resin, also called mastiha. It comes from the tree known in Greek as “schinos” and in Latin as Pistacia lentiscus. Incredibly, although the tree grows in other of Greece and the Mediterranean, it is only in the southern part of the island of Chios that it produces mastiha. The resin emerges, in drops shaped like tears, from cuts made in the bark of the trunk and branches. It is then left to air dry and harden on marble dust.
Mastiha holds an important place in Greek tradition, both culinary and cultural. It is used in numerous ways. For many years it was enjoyed mainly as a chewing gum. It was also a popular summer treat known as ipovrihio or submarine – a thick taffy, served by the spoonful and dipped in iced water.
Mastiha is still enjoyed as chewing gum and dessert. For many, especially on Chios, it is an aperatif of choice, often over ouzo and in some parts of Greece, it is served instead of brandy, at funerals. Nowadays, Mastiha is also the main ingredient in over 300 food, cosmetic and health products and its fame has spread far and wide.