A touch of mastic — in a Greek revival

In Jordan you may try it in a narghile; in Syria look for it sprinkled over coffee beans, in Yemen and Afghanistan its worry beads are collectors items. A tireless traveler through the centuries, mastic has one sole point of departure: the island of Chios. Broadly used as a spice but also in pharmaceuticals, dental hygiene products and cosmetics, the aromatic resin of the mastic tree grows exclusively on the southern part of the Aegean island. Lately, it is the people who grow it who have masterminded its revival. Their vehicle? A chain of shops promoting mastic products: Mastihashops were recently established on Athens’s Panepistimiou Street and on Chios, with Thessaloniki’s to open in December and at the Eleftherios Venizelos Airport in 2004. «Our aim is to promote mastic through its use and its products,» said Yiannis Mandalas, the managing director of Mediterra, a Chios Mastiha Growers Association company, to Kathimerini English Edition. «That’s how we came up with the idea of the shops, which act as a tool for the development of our association.» One of the instrumental steps taken by the association was to replace mastic’s final letter, giving it more of a Greek spin. At the Mastihashops, the range of products is constantly getting broader. Currently, visitors to the shops will find a variety of products, ranging from Korres natural products based on mastic (exclusively produced for Mastihashops, these include their Mastiha and natural clay mask, Mastiha body butter and Mastiha oil and avocado night creams); a series of Mylelia products – the organic food company is also working on a series of new products such as tyrokafteri with mastic; Turkish delight, natural soaps with or without essential oils, kourabiedes, ouzo, liqueurs, fresh juices (kept in freezers), homemade cookies and sweet rusks, as well as books and engravings. Also on display are the association’s own products, including mastic oil, mastic water, mastic powder and three types of chewing gum. (A collection of candies is also in the works, while the association is looking into future partnerships toward developing pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.) «Right now, the shops present mastic through the senses, through music, flavor and aromas, through products and publications,» said Mandalas. «In the future, however, they will be a welcoming place for all quality Greek products, with or without mastic. We are even more ‘aggressive,’ to the point of claiming the entire Eastern Mediterranean region, welcoming a selected collection of products stemming from mastic’s traditional markets. We could have an Iranian ceramic or an Armenian embroidery, for instance.» Besides acting as selling points, these «ambassadors of mastic,» according to Mandalas, are also areas of information, not to mention a point for cultural exchange. How about samples of Turkish delight from the entire Mediterranean basin? «Our aim is to make a space to host mastic and quality mastic products made not only in Chios and Greece, but also made from all points of mastic reference. From the great trade centers of the West and East, from Marseilles and Genoa to Trieste and Beirut, from Athens to Tehran, and from North to South, going from Odessa to Istanbul, Smyrna, Chios and Alexandria. «This broad region is identified as the traditional market from when the Genoese ruled.» It is this exciting history that triggered the association’s inspired efforts: «Who knows and uses the product today?» asked Mandalas rhetorically. «Diaspora Greeks and Arabs and gourmets know it but it is little known in Western Europe and in the USA.» In the last few years, mastic’s presence has also been curbed within its own environs. A number of lost opportunities and, at times, a lack of vision are responsible: Following the death of the association’s founder – Doctor Giorgos Stangoulis, who fought for the establishment of the Chios Mastiha Growers Association, which came about in 1938 – mastic growers lost their major client, Iraq, in the 1980s (mastic was an ingredient in Iraqi arak). For Mandalas, another crucial factor was mastic being replaced by vanilla. Today the association counts 4,850 members (anyone producing mastic is obliged to sell through the association), with about 2,200 of them producing actively – the majority as additional income. Annual production these days stands at 110 tons, compared to seven years ago when it had reached 60 tons, way behind its capacity of 250 to 300 tons back in the 1970s. Whatever its supply, however, demand always came from the Eastern Mediterranean region. «On Chios, before the opening of the Mastihashops, mastic was sold mostly in its natural form,» said Mandalas. «It had been eclipsed in traditional cooking, for instance. We gathered recipes from private homes and faced great difficulties in persuading two local bakers to produce them. Today, everybody is making something.» The project’s success goes far beyond mastic’s birthplace. This is reflected in the fact that Mandalas is currently examining over 60 business proposals for the development of shops around the country. Yet the association feels that it should take its time, building long-term values rather than following short-term trends. «The idea is to show that mastic is used worldwide; this is an exchange of culture,» said Mandalas. Meanwhile, there are also certain Greek listed companies that have shown an interest in raising the venture to a global level. In all cases, Mastihashops aspire to travel to mature markets, such those of Britain and the USA. Before that, however, they hope to cover more familiar ground – from Beirut to Cyprus, Riyadh and Istanbul. «We believe,» said Mandalas, «that the road to the West must go through the East.»