The Tender, Backbreaking Work of Producing Mastic on Chios

Photographer Clairy Moustafellou returned to Chios again and again to capture the painstaking cultivation and collection of the precious mastic "tears".

I visited the Mastichochoria (villages involved in the production of mastic) on the island of Chios three times in order to witness the most important moments in the production of this precious good that keeps the locals, whose lives revolve around it, busy during the whole year.

The first visit was during the month of June, when people clear a circular area around every mastic tree and sprinkle limestone powder on the ground inside the cleared radius. They do this so that later, when the resin from the tree falls on this bare ground and solidifies, it’s easier to collect.

I went back in August for the most important phase, which requires knowledge and experience: Locals call it “kentima,” the Greek word for “embroidery.”

Early every morning, they would carefully carve the tree trunks with a sharp tool, the “kentitiri” (or embroidery stiletto), to draw out the resin without hurting the trees. As I watched, it struck me how significant the relationship is between these people and their trees. “Kentima needs respect,” they say, and that’s why these mastic producers always do the job themselves.

In September, I returned to the island. This is when people collect the mastic “tears,” crouching under the trees and making their way around on their knees. In an effort to take part, I tried the same and began to feel pain, but didn’t dare say anything, as crouching next to me was an uncomplaining 80-year-old who undoubtedly would be doing this for many days to come.

For the next phase, the women take charge, washing the resin tears with soap and water and jiggling them – like a baby, as they say – over sieves, and finally eliminating any leftover foreign bodies with a small knife, so the mastic is as pure as possible when it gets to the cooperative. This last step requires teamwork. It begins as soon as the resin is harvested and lasts virtually the whole winter. Women go from house to house, working together in groups.

Joining in, I listened to them talk about mastic and its properties, but we discussed their everyday joys and pains as well. All together, like close-knit friends, we laughed, we felt moved by each other’s stories, and we cleaned the mastic.

In the end, they made me promise I would come back to help them again. I still need to make good on my word!

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