In Chios, Greece, the ed­i­ble sap from mas­tic trees dries in glit­ter­ing crys­tals.

Har­vest­ing the resin of the mas­tic tree has sus­tained gen­er­a­tions on the Greek is­land of Chios BY KATHERINE WHITTAKER

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THERE’S AN ART TO MAK­ING MAS­TIC TREES CRY. It takes a lit­tle bit of pres­sure to lodge the tip of a pick into the bark and pull it across the tree in a process called ken­tima, or sewing. Too lit­tle force and noth­ing hap­pens; too much and you risk dam­ag­ing the tree, dry­ing up its pre­cious resin long be­fore re­tire­ment age. The in­ci­sion should im­me­di­ately start to shim­mer with ooz­ing sap, which will even­tu­ally elon­gate into sticky, glit­tery tears.

Chios mas­tiha, or mas­tic, has a dis­tinct, piney taste that peo­ple ei­ther love or hate. When it dries off the tree, you’ll find it in opales­cent white pieces of vary­ing shapes and sizes. While per­fectly ed­i­ble in this form—a chewy, slowdis­solv­ing candy—it is also con­sumed in a va­ri­ety of other ways. One of the most com­mon, es­pe­cially in Greece, is known as a sub­ma­rine. A mas­tic so­lu­tion, a ghostly translu­cent white, is wrapped around a pop­si­cle stick in a sticky blob, then placed in a cup of ice-cold wa­ter. The blob is re­moved, leav­ing be­hind a fla­vored drink. Mas­tic is also blended into ice creams, cookie doughs, and cake bat­ters, and it is used to fla­vor every­thing from salts and sug­ars to gums, liqueurs, and olive oil. Mas­tic is said to help with di­ges­tive woes and cav­i­ties, and de­pend­ing on how pas­sion­ate a pro­ducer you ask, it can heal pretty much any­thing.

While mas­tic trees are found in other parts of the world, the Greek is­land of Chios is the only place where the trees pro­duce a resin this fla­vor­ful in such quan­tity. (Chios mas­tic has pro­tected sta­tus from the Euro­pean Union.) For this is­land, mas­tic is every­thing. Their econ­omy has re­lied on the sap for cen­turies, ex­port­ing it as early as 330 A.D. to Egypt and Syria, and to­day largely to the Mid­dle East. When Chios be­came part of the Ot­toman Em­pire in 1566, res­i­dents in the mas­tic vil­lages (known as mas­ti­cho­cho­ria) were ex­empt from cer­tain taxes and obli­ga­tions.

Age­liki Melekos, a pro­ducer in Chios who lives in Pyrgi—a mas­ti­cho­cho­ria fa­mous for its elab­o­rately dec­o­rated houses—has worked her fam­ily’s mas­tic trees for eight years. Their small grove is a five-minute drive out­side the vil­lage. “We live from mas­tiha,” she says. “If there is no mas­tiha, there is no money, no life.”

Seventy-eight-year-old farmer Michael Sta­moulas says that the ba­sic cul­ti­va­tion meth­ods have stayed the same since he be­gan work­ing with the trees as a child. He starts the ken­tima process in June, when he cov­ers the ground in cal­cium car­bon­ate, a white pow­der that keeps the fallen sap from stick­ing to dirt and grass. He scores the trunks once a week, start­ing from the ground and even­tu­ally mov­ing up to the high­est branches, un­til al­most the en­tire tree is etched with dark in­ci­sions. Once the tears drop to the ground, Sta­moulas leaves them to dry for about two weeks. He then gath­ers the hard­ened resin and cleans it in a basin of wa­ter with salt or cal­cium car­bon­ate. Clean mas­tic floats to the top. (After it’s washed, it is dried out on the floors of peo­ple’s houses.) His wife, Paraskevi, says that even as youths, they knew its im­por­tance. She would pick up bits of mas­tic after the sea­son’s end and sell them to buy a new dress. “To us, they are like di­a­monds.”

From top: The piney sap from the mas­tic tree col­lects at its base in droplets; th­ese crys­tal­lize as they dry in the sun; the sap is also used to dis­till spir­its like the sweet, resinous Mas­tic Tears liqueur.

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