Mastic, a rare gum or food/beverage flavouring, is the resin of the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus var. Chia). It is synonymous with the neighbouring Greek island of Chios; indeed, mastic in Turkish translates ‘damla sakızı’, and the Turkish name for the Island of Chios is ‘Sakız Adası’ or Mastic (Gum) Island. After shipping and general trade, mastic exports account for the third largest GDP industry for the Island of Chios.
Çeşme was an important mastic production centre in the past centuries, but when tobacco became a high-value cash crop, tobacco farmers largely replaced the mastic trees and vineyards of the region. Later a focus on tourism caused a decline in agricultural activities in the peninsula. In recent years, Turkey resumed efforts to boost mastic production, and many thousands of trees have been planted across the country.
Sapling mastic trees planted in 2022 close to the shore in Çeşme at Cumhuriyet Meydanı
Due largely to the temparate climate and soil conditions similar to the south part of Chios Island, the Çeşme peninsula remains the top location in terms of yields in Turkey. There is an effort to make Çeşme a centre for gastronomic tourism for which mastic is an indigenous and, therefore, essential ingredient. Mastic trees have been planted in Çiftlikköy village south of Çeşme and on the outskirts of Alaçati. Following destructive forest fires in August 2021, just north of Ildiri on the Gerence Gulf, a regeneration of the region was started with the planting of over 5,000 mastic saplings.
The slow-growing evergreen mastic shrub reaches a height of up to three metres and maturity after around forty years with a lifespan of one hundred years. Trees can start producing mastic resin after five to eight years of growth and yield between 60g and 250g of resin. In preparation lower branches of the trees are pruned in February and in June the ground around the trees is cleaned and covered with a white chalk stone power. Harvesting of mastic occurs in July through to September and consists of a process of “pricking” incisions into the tree to elicit the “tears” of sap that are hardened and crystalised on the tree before falling to the ground. The white/pale yellow resin is collected and sorted for quality and hand cleaned to remove sand and other contaminants.
It is understood that mastic has antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory action; 2,400 years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates II and 2,000 years ago, the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides noted and recommended mastic in cases of stomach pain, ulcers, digestive aids and oral hygiene.
Although initially bitter to taste, the raw hard resin can be chewed and will soften to a gum texture giving off the distinct floral flavours of mastic. In 2015 the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved the use of mastic as a traditional herbal remedy for the symptoms of mild digestive disorders.
The boutique food store Çeşme Köy Kurabiyecisi on the high street in Çeşme is typical of several such shops in Çeşme and Alaçati that specialise in products and bakery items flavoured with mastic.
The resin is typically processed and used in a variety of ways, primarily for food (sweets, Turkish delight, chewing gums, biscuits, cakes, desserts, ice creams, and jams) and beverage (coffee, sodas, and alcoholic spirits) flavourings but also for cosmetics (toothpaste, soaps, shampoo, face creams, perfumes and body oils).
Besides Greece and Turkey, mastic is a popular ingredient in the products and cuisine of Eygpt, Iraq, Japan, Lebabnon, Morrocco, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Example beverages with mastic:
“Skinos Mastiha Spirit” is a Greek 30% alcoholic spirit flavoured with mastic and sugar and used in long drinks such as Skinos & lemonade, or in contemporary cocktails like Skinos Mediterranean Negroni. It can be purchased in duty free shops in Greece and Turkey.
“Kocatepe Damla Sakızlı Türk Kahvesi” is a ground Turkish coffee bean flavoured with mastic. It is prepared by mixing with cold/ambient water and cooked at a medium-low heat for approximately 3-minutes. It can be purchased in supermarkets and grocery stores throughout Turkey.