As we are entering the countdown to Christmas, preparations for the festive season reach new levels. For me, this usually involves a panicked trip to the shops with my Christmas list, the realisation that I’ve run out of wrapping paper minutes before closing time, and the overwhelming smell of dried oranges and spices from the decorative garlands that appear to have taken over every single shopping centre. My fondest pre-Christmas memories however do not involve shops or gift-buying: they are always linked with the smell of home-baking. Smells that I immediately connect to the celebration of Christmas: orange zest, mahleb, cinnamon, cardamom. And of course, mastic.
Mastic is the dried resin of Pistacia lentiscus, and it is considered part of the Holy Trinity for Greek bakers (the other two being mahleb and cardamom). Although the species grows well in the Mediterranean, the particularly aromatic variety of Chios is a little more temperamental, growing primarily in the island Chios and some areas of Turkey. The production of mastic from Chios is limited in 22 small villages, which have created their own cooperative. The growing process is not for the faint of heart. From January to March/April the growers carefully prune the bushes to particular shapes, to promote the best possible growing conditions. During late spring and early summer the area surrounding the bushes is carefully cleaned and then sprinkled with agricultural lime. This is followed by repeated incisions on the bark to release resin, which then hardens. When dry, the resin is collected and washed manually before it is sold. A UNESCO video of mastic harvest is available here.
This labour-intensive process makes mastic a highly prized addition to festive baking. Commonly, mastic is included in the preparation of Christopsomo (roughly translated as Christ’s bread). Although the name, and symbolism of the decorations (usually a big cross in the centre), represent the strong connection to Christian tradition, the preparation of luxurious breads for a winter festival dates back to antiquity. With the days finally increasing in length, the ancients celebrated this important phenomenon by making offerings to the gods. Demeter, the goddess of grain, agriculture, and, for some, the great mother goddess, was celebrated through the presentation of a loaf that included the most luxurious and hard to get ingredients, such as walnuts, almonds, and dried fruits. And even though the religious practices may have changed through the centuries, the festive season requires the production of such a luxurious loaf even today. Every family has its own traditions on its preparation, with as many recipes as there are ingredient combinations out there. Yet the one thing that is constant is the use of precious ingredients. As for the celebration breads in my family, we all religiously follow my grandmother’s recipe, with mahleb, mastic, and oranges, but I am afraid I cannot share this with you, some secrets have to stay in the family. In the meantime, why don’t you try this recipe, which does not include any of the specialist ingredients you may not be able to get such as mastic and mahleb but sounds delicious nonetheless.
Photos of mastic by Maria Christodoulou