The newest big ingredient to capture our imaginations happens to be one of the world's oldest, too. Mastiha – or mastic or mastika – was the chewing gum of ancient Greeks. It was also medicine, mouthwash, spice and one of the key ingredients of baked goods.
The resin (or sap) of the Pistacia lentiscus tree, a member of the pistachio family, is sold as crystals that start off crumbly, dusty and a little bitter in the mouth, but with a little body heat and mastication, soon morphs into a delicately herbaceous and perfectly chewy gum. And yes, it's as much an acquired taste as Quebec's spruce beer or Italy's Brio.
It's believed to be a great antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory agent and has always been valued as both a medicine and a food. Though it never went away, it hasn't always been in fashion. But now, it is enjoying a bit of a renaissance.
Available in crystals of varying sizes and powder, this ancient ingredient is fundamental for flavouring and adding texture to many dishes of the Middle East and Mediterranean. In Turkey, salepi is a thick and elastic ice cream made with ground orchids and mastic. And in Iran and Syria, mastic gives rose water-scented ice cream, bouzat haleeb, its stretchy consistency. And while every Greek granny probably always has a little jar of the stuff in her pantry, it's now resurfacing in bars and cafés in Europe and North America.
At Victory Garden, a trendy café and ice cream shop in New York, owner Sophia Brittan concocts a coffee with mastic- and cardamom-infused goat milk as well as a mastic-flavoured goat milk soft serve ice cream. Canadian chef Christine Cushing uses it in her Greek Easter bread. "The aroma and familiar flavour it imparts is amazing." But, she cautions, "You have to get the quantity just right. If you use too much, the resin will take over and be too strong but without mastic and mahlepi Easter bread is not Greek!"(This year Orthodox Easter falls on April 15.)
Buyer Beware. Not all Mastiha is Chios Mastiha. The genuine stuff is protected by the EU as a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) – rather like Ontario's VQA or France's DOC for wines – and must come from the southern region of the island of Chios, just off the coast of Greece in the Aegean Sea. Look for the official seal.
Where to buy: mastihashopny.com or as Ms. Cushing suggests, visit your city's Greek bakeries or shops – you're bound to find it, especially around Easter.
Special to The Globe and Mail