The Legend of the Weeping Trees

Chios is the fifth largest island in Greece, situated just a stone’s throw from the Turkish mainland on the Aegean sea. Aside from the usual postcard-perfect idyllic beaches and natural beauty found on all Greek islands, Chios is also known for another reason, equally important to both Greeks and Turks: for more than 2,500 years, people in the wider region have been living in partnership with the famous “weeping tree”, Pistacia lentiscus.

Although the tree is found growing in the wild throughout the entire Mediterranean region, even in the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, it is only here, on this island, where people have learned to cultivate the tree, to “talk” to it so that it rewards them with its tears: a precious resin which has the most unique and mesmerising aroma. Combining sweet cinnamon, fresh pine, cedar, floral and citrus notes, “mastic” as it is called, is a flavour that cannot be described unless you actually try it. Like saffron or other completely unique spices, mastic lives in its own world. And for thousands of years, a hardy tree that manages to grow in challenging dry and rocky environments has been a symbol of peace and cultural exchange, bringing Greeks and Turks, longtime bitter rivals, into contact with each other around a common favourite topic: puddings. 

While Ancient Greeks used mastic mostly for medicinal purposes to treat a variety of ailments, modern Greeks have been using mastic traditionally in confectionary, baking, even chewing gum and coffee. Turks have had their own love history with mastic, using its sweet aroma generously in a range of famous desserts, including the iconic Turkish Delight. There is just no substitute for mastic.

Despite the island’s tumultuous history, having gone through successive occupation by the Byzantines, Romans, Genoese and Ottomans, Chios thrived over time as people’s relationship with the tree grew. At the height of the mastic trade, the island became internationally famous. There was even a time when mastic, the tear-shaped solidified translucent grains of the resin, were worth their weight in gold. The trees themselves became so valuable that they had to be guarded, and they were often grown exclusively inside people’s private orchards, shielded by tall fortified medieval walls all around to protect them from thieves and pirates, and give the trees the peace of mind that they needed so that they can cry in their own privacy. Partly thanks to the trees, the farmers’ villages grew into beautiful medieval citadels, expressing a unique architectural style that has gained them UNESCO World Heritage Monument Status.

In year 1822, at the height of the Greek Independence War, the island of Chios was completely destroyed by the Ottoman army. Everything on the island was burned down and as many as 52,000 people (estimated 75% of the island’s population) were slaughtered —  others taken as slaves, never to see Chios or Greece again. The anniversary became known as the Destruction of Chios, and the mastic product itself gained the trade name “Tears of Chios”, forever linked to the darkest day in the island’s history. The tears of the tree had become the tears of the people.

But while the vast majority of the island was burned down, the medieval villages of the weeping trees had somehow survived, spared by the sultan who wanted to ensure the production of mastic continues. As the soldiers approached the villages, the trees began to weep behind the fortress walls. Small rivers of resin, an otherwise viscous substance that takes months to form a single “teardrop”, began to flow copiously down the hillside. The sweet aroma of cloves, cinnamon, almond and cedar filled the air, bringing the Ottoman army to a standstill. The trees had saved the farmers. And the 24 mastic-producing villages continue to this day, producing and exporting their precious “tears” across the world.

Perhaps I have overdramatised how much the trees wept. But one way or another, they did save the farmers from complete genocide. They brought peace. In fact, resins are more than just “tears”. They are produced by trees as a defence mechanism. They are usually the tree’s “silicon repair kit”, plugging in holes in the bark from injury and trapping insect intruders in the process, some of which have been found thousands of years later preserved within amber, a type of fossilised tree resin. The intoxicating, heavenly smell of tree resins, which acts as an antibacterial that protects the tree, is used in a wide range of industries, from foods and cosmetics to paint varnishes. From mastic to myrrh and frankincense, we have depended on the tears of trees for thousands of years.

When are we going to finally learn how to cry ourselves?

To be continued …(or not)

George is a chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , join his mailing list, or read his books:

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