Sticky mastic business is getting off the ground

Ancient Greeks knew it as a cure for bellyaches. Roman emperors used to spice their wine with it. And Turkish sultans’ harem ladies chewed it for fresh breath and to fight boredom. Mastic, the aromatic resin produced by a small, eponymous evergreen tree that grows around the Mediterranean Sea, has been a big hit for more than 2,000 years. Armies of Roman, Byzantine, Genoese and Turkish merchants carried the natural chewing gum from the Greek island of Chios to the great trade capitals of the world. To this day, Chios inexplicably remains the only place on earth where mastic trees produce resin as plentiful and pure. But only recently did local producers find out what it takes to sell mastiha (pronounced masteeha) in the modern, brand-driven marketplace. «Producers just didn’t know how to present the product to people who don’t know about it. Growers tried to present mastiha’s various uses at commercial fairs, but these attempts always bordered on the rustic,» said Yiannis Mandalas, a young Greek manager who runs mastihashop, a start-up retail chain for the resin’s various products. The thick, transparent, sticky liquid has multiple uses. In the Middle East, mastic adds spice to local cuisine and pastry. The French buy its distilled oil for perfumes. And US firms apply it in bandages, pharmaceuticals and varnishes. Sales received an initial blow in the 1960s when nationalist regimes in the Middle East, the biggest market, insisted on prohibitive trade terms. Adulterations with lower-grade resins abounded and continue to this day. Synthetic substitutes started crowding out the product in the industry. And the labor force shrank as young men from the 22 villages in southern Chios where the mastic tree grows increasingly turned their backs on the fields, lured by tourism and shipping. In the late 1990s, the producers pulled their act together, got a business-minded management team and set out to conquer new markets, said Constantine Ganiaris, president of the Chios Gum Mastic Growers Association (EMX), which numbers around 6,500 members. «This year, we expect to break the annual production mark of 150 tons for the first time in 20 years,» he told AFP. Mastihashop is a key initiative to expand the retail market. The shops try to attract customers by evoking a kind of Eastern Mediterranean leisurely, sensual culture. Wrapped up in packages evoking nostalgic images of the 19th and early 20th century, mastic-based spices, alcoholic drinks, cookies, chocolates, Turkish delight, oils and perfumes from Arab countries, Greece and Turkey dominate the shelves in mastihashop’s downtown Athens branch. Japanese mastic toothpaste and nutritional supplements round up the multicultural picture. «Mastihashop is basically a lifestyle grocery… it would be a mistake to become just a Greek shop,» Mandalas told AFP. The first mastihashop opened in the summer of 2002 on Chios and was a runaway success, Mandalas said. «We broke even after 72 days.» «The shop is earning us around 600,000 euros a year,» he said. Planning to set up masthihashops in Cyprus, Beirut, Jidda and Dubai is under way. Wealthy Chios shipowners with property in New York and London are offering commercial space for expansion there. Technology-driven mastic collection methods were dropped to safeguard the product’s traditional image. Mastic is still collected the old-fashioned way: Farmers prick mastic trees in high summer. The outpouring resin is left to dry on the tree trunk, branches and surrounding soil and is collected in mid-September. Other commercial agreements include the first-ever professional sales pitch for mastic-based, Chios chewing gum Elma by Greek food major Elgeka. The firm expects the deal to generate 6.5 million euros a year. And EMX is widely expected to make a foray into the nascent Japanese market on the back of a Greek retailer.