If ever there was a spice you've never experienced knowingly, but have probably consumed without realising it, the multi-faceted mastic is surely the one. It simply has so many uses.
Mastic tree leaves and fruit
The mastic tree is a native of Greece and the Middle East and found freely scattered across the Mediterranean region in Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Turkey, the Canary Islands and also in tropical Africa. Mastic has been cultivated in England since 1664. It is principally exported from Scio in the Aegean Sea, on which island it has been cultivated for several centuries.
Anacardiaceae (cashew family).
The yellowish resin extracted from the plant has a delicate liquorice flavour. The odour is agreeable, the taste mild and resinous and when chewed it becomes soft and easy to masticate.
The name "mastic" derives from the Latin mastichum, in turn derived from the Greek masticha "to chew", on account of it being used as a chewing gum.
The genus name pistacia derives from Latin pistacium "pistachio nut", derived in turn from the Greek pistakion (from pistakē "pistachio tree", perhaps from Middle Persian pistak).
It is believed by some sources that the "balm of Jacob" referred to in the Old Testament was the mastic gum from the lentisk or mastic tree, hence the derivation of the species name lentiscus. There is presumably a connection with the Spring season, commonly derived with modern English "Lent".
Mastic has been used as a chewing gum for sweetening the breath and preserving the gums since classical times and is extracted as the resin of the plant pistacia lentiscus. An oil used both for illumination and for cookery is produced from the berries in Arab countries.
The gum is used in Greece for making masticha (a popular sweetmeat) and mastiche (a liqueur) and also used in Turkey for making lokum "Turkish delight" and raki. In Cyprus, the fruits are used in sausage making and the leaves and stems are burned to smoke meats.
Used in small amounts, pieces of the gum are sometimes pounded in pestle and mortar to add to biscuits or sweet breads.
Mastic has medicinal properties as a stimulant and diuretic. It has many of the properties of the turpentines and was formerly much used in medicine. In more recent times it has chiefly been used for filling carious teeth, either alone or in spirituous solution. It is used for varnishes and in the manufacture of sweets and cordials in the East, where it is still used medicinally in the diarrhoea of children and masticated to sweeten the breath.