Mastic is harvested from the sap of the broad leaf evergreen mastic tree. This tree is endemic to the Greek island of Chios (birthplace of the poet Homer), and it has been cultivated there in large numbers since antiquity. Its crop is valued internationally, and for that reason it has made the island of Chios famous. Today mastic is used in folk medicine preparations and more importantly as a flavoring in food and spirits. It is also an ingredient in Chrism or Myrrh, the consecrated oil used by the Orthodox, Roman and Anglican churches. To harvest mastic, incisions are made in the bark of the trunk and branches of the tree.
From these incisions a resin begins to appear. It is pea sized, globular and translucent, and it is commonly referred to as “tears.” As the resin begins to fall to the ground the tree is said to be “weeping.”
They really do look like tears!
The mastic tears are collected, cleaned and dried. Mastic for flavoring is sold in air tight containers that contain small pieces of tears. Before using them in recipes the tears must be pulverized into powder form. To make powdered mastic, use a mortar and pestle to pound the resin. It is easier to smash it by adding a little sugar or salt. The flavor is slightly sweet and reminiscent of cedar. Historically one of the more popular uses of mastic was to chew it in order to freshen the breath. Thus it was given its name mastic, which derives from a Greek verb meaning to chew. The English verb masticate derives from the same root, and the Greek word for chewing gum, is “mastiha.”
As a young child growing up in Greece, I remember that I could buy a small package of about 3 pieces of "mastiha from Chios" for the cost of half a drachma, which back then amounted to less than a penny U.S. I could afford it better than the tiny box of minty chicklets which cost one whole drachma. So I would chew my gum from Chios, carefully at first because its texture was hard at the outset. Soon it would take on a gummy consistency and it would release its distinct freshening flavor which would last for a good half hour. Then it would be time to discard it and buy some more. Alas, I gave up chewing it when I discovered bubble gum!
Mastic gum flavoring can be purchased in specialty Greek or Middle Eastern stores.