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Rooted in antiquity

Exploring the mastic villages on the Greek island of Chios

By Alexis Marie Adams
Globe Correspondent / August 14, 2011

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MESTA, Greece - The instant we enter the mastic grove, the heat of midday drops and the craggy, sun-bleached landscape of the Greek Island of Chios is transformed. A type of wild pistachio, the evergreen mastic tree has shiny, dark green leaves and long gnarled branches that twist and turn horizontally. Between the dusky green light, the floor of the grove, which the farmer keeps impeccably clean, the sharp scent of mastic sap, and the mythical appearance of the trees, it seems that we have entered a place inhabited by creatures poised to dance a slow, medieval dance.

Also known as lentisk, the slow-growing mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus var. Chia) is not only enchanted in appearance, it also presents an intriguing mystery. Although the tree is native to the Mediterranean region, southern Chios is the only place in the world where it exudes its resin in enough quantity and quality to be harvested - over 120 tons each year.

My daughter Sylvie, 8, and I follow our guide, Vassilis Ballas, through the shade of the grove to a tree. Six years ago, Ballas and his wife, Roula Boura, both IT professionals, fled the throngs and smog of Athens to Chios to tend his family’s ancestral trees and to start the ecotourism company, Masticulture, which offers seminars and tours focused on the culture, agriculture, and natural history of the island, Greece’s fifth largest.

At the foot of the tree, Ballas drops his bag of tools, pulls out a small, sharp, pick-like instrument, and uses it to score inch-long incisions in the bark. From these incisions, mastic will slowly ooze, forming tear-shaped droplets that eventually fall to the ground, thus mastic’s nickname, “tears of Chios.’’

Since antiquity, mastic has been prized for its therapeutic and culinary properties. Hippocrates recommended it for gastrointestinal disorders. In Persia, it was used to fill cavities. In its raw form, mastic can be crushed with a mortar and pestle with salt for savory dishes, sugar for sweet. It can also be chewed like gum (thus “masticate’’). In traditional Greek cooking, mastic is used to flavor Easter and Christmas breads, spoon sweets, and confections. Today in Greece, the resin is experiencing renewed popularity and imparts its flavor to gourmet ice creams, fine chocolates, and other fancy foodstuffs.

Standing in the cool of the grove, we listen as Ballas describes the fables and songs that have been inspired by the mastic tree, and I am impressed by the affect the resin has had on the culture of this eastern Aegean island. In fact, it occurs to me, it is mastic resin that has literally shaped the history and architecture of the southern half of Chios. By the 14th century, mastic had become so coveted and valuable that the Genoese conquered the island to gain control of the trade. It was the Genoese who built the Mastichochoria, the 24 mastic villages scattered around southern Chios, in order to protect the mastic harvest and the farmers without whose expertise, cultivation would decline.

During the Ottoman domination of Chios (the island is only 7 nautical miles from the Turkish coast), mastic was worth its weight in gold and the mastic farmers were accorded special privileges. It was the Turks’ fear of losing their control of the mastic trade that provoked the massacre of 1822, when Turkish soldiers killed 30,000 of the island’s Greek inhabitants. The residents of the Mastichochoria were spared.

The techniques used to harvest mastic haven’t changed much since those turbulent times. From June until early October, families of the Mastichochoria go to the groves each day to carve incisions into the trunks and main branches of the trees. At the end of the harvest, the resin is gathered and, through the fall and winter, painstakingly sifted, sorted, and washed by hand.

Five minutes by foot from Ballas’s grove lies Mesta. One of the Mastichochoria, it is a picturesque medieval village of around 300 residents. Sheltered within thick, fortified walls built in the shape of a pentagon, with seven entrances to the village within, Mesta was designed as a labyrinth to stymie scavenging pirates. Its narrow, winding lanes are bridged by long, low archways and lined with antique stone houses joined tightly together. On nearly every doorstep, veranda, or corner there are bright splashes of red, pink, and orange: geraniums, bougainvillea, aromatic jasmine and honeysuckle - all sprouting from earthen pots because there is no room for gardens in the village.

Of the Mastichochoria, Mesta is one of the best preserved and therefore among the most famous. Thus, in its central square you not only see “yia-yias,’’ or grandmas, in white kerchiefs gossiping as they sit gathered together sorting chickpeas (and, in the fall, mastic), but also find free Wi-Fi and lively “cafenions’’ where one can sip an espresso or other drinks, alcoholic and not, and taste some of that premium mastic ice cream.

For my daughter, Mesta is an enchanting medieval playground, a car-free paradise where she can run and play without fear or reservation. This is where the owner of our favorite cafenion feeds her free ice cream by the bowlful and the same yia-yias remark on her golden hair. For me, the claustrophobe, its cloistered atmosphere takes a bit of getting used to. But after a day, I am loath to be anywhere else.

Still, trek on we must and on our second day on the island, we take a day trip from the confines of Mesta to explore the other Mastichochoria and we find that each village offers its own charm or intrigue. A few kilometers down the road from Mesta, Olympi is well preserved with a beautiful central square. We are especially astonished by the village of Pirgi, the largest of the Mastichochoria, where nearly every building is covered in sgraffito facades - dark gray geometric patterns scratched into whitewashed walls. Pirgi, too, has a lively square with restaurants and cafenions, and a 13-century Byzantine church.

Mesta, Pirgi, and the rest of the Mastichochoria have prospered through the ages as a result of the mastic trade and today they continue to fare well, despite Greece’s economic woes. Luckily, the denizens of the Mastichochoria need not hawk postcards or entice tourists into a high-ticket meal. Their lives continue to be centered on the care of their beloved mastic trees.

An interesting detour from the Mastichochoria is elegant Kampos, an aromatic patchwork of citrus and almond groves, gardens and stately mansions immediately south of Chios Town. Like the Mastichochoria, Kampos was built by the Genoese, but to house the owners of the mastic groves. Through the latticework of the mansions’ gates, you can see elaborate gardens and orchards and the enormous water wheels once used to irrigate them.

There is no need to peer through the gates if you visit the Citrus Museum. Located on the historic estate of the Ksydas family, the museum details the agricultural and cultural history of Kampos. Its shop sells delicious confections and jams made with lemons, oranges, mandarins, and almonds grown organically on the estate.

As famous as Chios is for its mastic and Mastichochoria, it is also a destination for nature lovers. Rugged and sparsely populated, it is home to more than 75 species of wild orchids, and because much of the land is uncultivated and undeveloped, the island provides important habitat to migrating birds. Moreover, its beaches are beautiful and often empty. In our short time, we discovered an island full of delightful surprises. It is not unusual to follow a dirt road a kilometer or more and find at its end a beautiful sandy inlet next to a wetland teeming with birds, or the startling remnant of a medieval fortress in a meadow of crocuses.

Back in Mesta on our last night on Chios, my daughter and I sit with Ballas and Boura in the twilit square. The manager of our favorite cafenion arrives at our table. Eager to coax my shy daughter into a conversation, he offers her a bowl of her favorite ice cream. She nods, hesitantly but happily. In the distance, we hear the cooing of a mourning dove. An elderly man meanders around and around the square, slowly pushing his year-old granddaughter in her stroller. Christos, a Greek-Australian descendent of Mesta who has returned to live out the rest of his days in the village, stops for a chat. Others pass by calling out greetings. I watch my daughter enjoying her ice cream and think back on our time here. The mastic trees may shed tears each year, but for us this visit has been nothing but joyful.

Alexis Marie Adams can be reached at poulithra@gmail.com.

If You Go

What to do
Masticulture
Mesta, Chios, Greece
011-30-22710-76084
011-30-6976-113-007
www.masticulture.com
Vassilis Ballas and Roula Boura offer interesting day trips and tours throughout the island, including bicycling, trekking, agri-tours, and cooking classes. To learn about the mastic harvest, history, and lore, don’t miss “Mastic Mystique.’’ Participants help to harvest mastic resin and are treated to a picnic lunch.
Citrus
Kampos
011-30-22710-31513
www.citrus-chios.gr
Located on an organic farm and estate, this museum offers insight on the history of the Kampos.
Where to eat
Hodjas
Georgiou Kondyli 3
Chios Town
011-30-22710-42787
Founded in 1882, Hodjas offers a delicious selection of traditional island fare with a twist. Full meal $21-$28 per person.
Kastro
Mesta
011-30-22710-76146
Homemade, traditional, taverna-style food. Full meal $10-$20 per person,
Where to stay
Medieval Castle Suites
Mesta
011-30-22710-76345
www.mcsuites.gr
A collection of medieval houses around Mesta that have been renovated into luxury apartments, $94-$321.
Masticulture
Mesta
011-30-22710-76084
www.masticulture.com
Masticulture offers booking services throughout the mastic villages, $50 and up. The author stayed in a beautifully appointed apartment in a medieval dwelling owned by Despoina Karabela, $72-$86.
Perleas Mansion
Vitiadou Street
Kampos
011-30-22710-32217
www.perleas.gr
Hotel in an elegant mansion on four acres of organically cultivated land, $109-$175.