Back in the day, the sultan reserved the whole crop for the exclusive use of the Ottoman state. Those growers that kept even the slightest quantity for themselves were put to death. Those that so much as cut a branch from the tree that produced it were savagely tortured.
Such was the allure of Masticha, a unique substance in the world and unique product to Greece - even more specifically, to the Mastichochoria region of a medium-sized island in the North East Aegean called Chios. Residents of Chios can take particular pride in many aspects of their heritage. Birthplace of Homer (according to tradition), and site of a particularly gruesome battle in the name of patriotism (in the Greek War of Independence, 1822), the island is worthy of merit on history alone.
But the mastic tree has been making history, and products, and pastries, for millennia. Its uses are myriad, its medicinal aspects legendary (and, of late, confirmed), and its status as a delicacy – in confections, in liqueurs, in cuisine – is unparalleled to the converted.
The rest of you will at least become curious.
A bit about Chios
Chios has a population of 50,000. It is fairly central in the Greek archipelago and, relative to many other islands, is rather large (842 square km with a coastline of 213 km). Semi-mountainous, its landscape is varied -- rocky and precipitous in the north, flatter in the south and east (with sandy beaches), with lush valleys and pine forests interspersed. Chios town is the capital and hub, though there are a multitude of other major villages and hamlets, some quite lovely. Due to its beauty and natural resources, historically Chios was very wealthy (according to Thucydides, Chians were the richest Greeks); centuries of occupation and war have marred this, but the vestiges remain.
There is a large Greek Army contingent on Chios; due to its flat beaches, it is apparently ideal for invasion. Perhaps this is one reason it has remained largely undeveloped and free of tourists?
Chios is famed for its ship owners (notably Onassis) and lovely countryside, but above all for the fact that it is the only place in the world where Masticha is produced.
Masticha, or mastic gum, gum mastic, chios mastic, mastiha and any number of other names (pistacia lentiscus var. Chia scientifically) is a 100% Greek product and, as such, is registered by the European Union as PDO (PGI). It is a natural product that comes from Mastic trees, which are small evergreen trees native to the Mediterranean region, growing as far west as Morocco and Iberia and to the east as far as Turkey. Though the tree grows far and wide, the famed Masticha resin can only be produced from the Chios Mastic tree.
Why only on Chios?
Well, one would argue, much in the same way that a chardonnay grape in Chassagne Montrachet is unlike any other, it is the terroir – the land. Chios' soil (with its lime content and high-drainage properties), the sun, the relative dryness, and the under-water volcanoes create an overall environment that cannot be replicated. Perhaps that is why it is such a fickle plant, unyielding of Masticha even if transplanted elsewhere on Chios itself. As you can imagine, this has been the subject of much research.
Cultivated similarly to maple sap, it oozes out of incisions made into the bark of the tree. Though it is called "the tears of God" or "Chios Tears" because of the off-white, semi-transparent droplets it forms, it should rather be referred to as nectar. Indeed, its sweet and inimitable scent, exuded from the bark of the tree, is exquisite. It looks like rock candy. It comes in grades of purity, from one to five, with one suitable for immediate consumption. Other grades are processed for sundry uses, edible to industrial.