Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The secret ingredient you never heard of

Reading the New York Times food section this morning I found an article that referred to mastic, a flavor of ice cream, which the writer described as "a kind of natural gum used in the eastern Mediterranean."  Wow, did that bring back memories!

A few years ago we visited Chios, a Greek island just off the coast of Turkey, and learned more than we ever wanted to know about mastic.  To hear the locals tell it, mastic was an appropriate additive to any sort of food, cured anything that ailed you, was the foundation for the prosperity and spread of the Greek civilization, and induced the evil Turks to invade and rape the island on more than one occasion.

Quite a resume for the sticky, herbal-tasting resin from a small tree.  Collect it, refine it, and use it for whatever your heart desires, from caulking ships to make them watertight (thus enabling the Greeks to venture throughout the Mediterranean) to serving in many medicinal compounds.  We got to see mastic trees in the wild

and how they are slashed to let the resin ooze out.  They called it "tears of Chios," because the trees weep resin. 

We all took beads of resin from the bark and chewed them, after which you couldn't get the sticky stuff off your teeth for what seemed like days.  In fact, mastic and masticate come from the same root, Greek for "gnash the teeth" (exactly what we did when even our toothbrushes didn't work very well).

Our hotel room had a little dish of mastic candy, which I had some of immediately upon arrival, before I'd heard the mastic infomercials and knew what I was eating.  It tasted like grass, not very sweet, and had been processed somehow so that it got off your teeth in a matter of hours rather than days.

After our total mastic immersion lectures on Chios, we reverted back to total absence of mastic from public discourse.  Until today.  It will probably be many years before I hear about it again, unless I go to New York for a nice bowl of mastic-flavored goat's milk ice cream.

1 comment:

  1. Mastic is also the name of a white gummy substance used to coat the roofs of commercial buildings. It reflects sunlight and theoretically lowers cooling costs. Frequently it includes ground up fiber optic glass too, which is why I know a sunburn on the bottom of the nose is singularly awful. After three hours of applying the stuff, the reflected light is unpleasant.