Chios is a blessed island. Its fertile ground combined with the mediterranean climate enable the cultivation of many, different high – quality products.
The leading and most well known local product is the unique Mastic. It is solely produced in Chios, and its uses and products are multiple. Do not forget to get mastic products, before you leave Chios! Gums, ouzo, liqueurs, varieties of sweets, natural soaps and candles – the list of mastic products is aromatic and ever expanding.
Chios also has a long tradition in wine and spirit making. Tens of family – run distilleries produce special ouzo, exquisite liqueurs and souma, a spirit made from figs.
High quality wines are produced on the island, drawing from the long tradition of Ariousios Oinos, the famous wine of the ancient times.
Chios is also an olive-producing island. The olive oil produced is mainly for family use, it is not normally traded. However, in the recent years there has been a rise in the interest for the production of a special kind of dried olive, called “throuba”.
Chios is known for the exquisite varieties of its citrus fruits, especially the tangerine, which are produced in the Kampos of Chios. The decline of the citrus fruit trade has led the producers to specialise in sweets and marmalades made by their fruit produce.
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If there ever was a trademark for Chios, this would surely be the mastic tree. Often in the past this unique product became a divine gift and curse of the island, since the monopoly of the mastic trade has always been the apple of discord between the powerful forces of every era.
The mastic tree
The mastic tree is an evergreen tree, which belongs to the family Pistachia and can reach up to 2-3 metres. The mastic production begins in the fifth to sixth year of the mastic tree, or schinos as the locals call it.
This mastic-bearing tree, as old as the earth, which holds and nourishes it, has cast its shadow on the Chian land for centuries. Around its production, homes were set up and societies formed with particular cultures and traditions, leaving indelible marks over the centuries.
In Greece, extensive use of mastic is made in the manufacturing of alcoholic beverages, and especially various kinds of liqueurs and ouzo. The liqueur "Chios Mastic" and the drink "Mastic Ouzo" are well known Greek drinks. The Arabs scent their drinking water by burning mastic in it. The mastic gum is used in sweets, pastries, delights, cookies, ice cream, cakes and biscuits. The "mastic sweet" which is well-known, is served in a strange way called "submarine", because it comes submerged in a glass of water.
The mastic gum is also used as a condiment. In Cyprus and Saudi Arabia and in other Arab states, it is used to add flavor to the bread. In Lebanon and Syria, housewives prepare a traditional type of cheese that takes its special aroma and taste from the mastic it contains. The Arabs consider it a sample of large luxury when one can flavor dishes, desserts or even milk with mastic, a fact which can probably be attributed to references to this practice that exist in their sacred texts.
The "kendos" and the harvesting of mastic
The preparation of the mastic tree and harvesting of mastic is very strenuous work starting in June when the soil beneath the mastic tree is cleaned. Following the cleaning of the soil, it is meticulously covered with a special white soil, which has been finely sifted. Then begins the "embroidery" in the trunk of the tree, which is done with sections that are 10-15mm long, repeated once a week for 6-8 weeks. The number of sections varies from 20 to 100 depending on the age and size of the tree. Mastic is slowly leaking from the incisions in the form of teardrops. Most of the quantity produced falls onto the sifted white soil and takes 15-30 days to become solid, depending on weather conditions.
Other Uses of Chios Mastic
Mastic is also used in the making of cosmetics and perfumes (creams, shampoos, etc.), lithography, painting, beverage making, weaving, cotton manufacturing, and in some sectors of industry. In dentistry it is used in order to strengthen the gums and for oral disinfection. Mastic is also used in gourmet cooking and baking (in delight making, and in mastic candies, Mastichato, and bread).
Mastic as a medicine
In recent years mastic has resurfaced as a medicine, used in pharmacology and medicine to treat diabetes, cholesterol, and stomach pain. In a medical conference (Athens 1999) it was announced that mastic, apart from its other beneficial properties, can also cure stomach ulcers. It has also been found to have anticancer properties, which have not yet been fully applied, as they are still being researched.
The uniquely pleasant taste of the citrus fruits of Chios and their fragrant aroma gave the island of Chios the appellation ‘Myrovolos’, which stands for ‘the fragrant isle’. The quality and unique characteristics of these citrus fruits is brought about primarily due to the microclimate of the area (which is characterized by mild winters with little rainfall, cool summers with plenty of sunshine and strong breezes) and secondly due to the people who cultivate the citrus trees with care.
The citrus fruits of Chios were famous for their quality mainly in the markets of Eastern Europe, where they were exported in numerous steamboats. The oranges and mandarins of Chios were long known and marketed as "Oranges from Chios" and "Mandarins from Chios", long before the term designation of origin acquired its present meaning. The cultivation of citrus fruits was another innovation introduced by the otherwise harsh Genoese conquerors (1348-1566). Having determined that these evergreen trees had the potential to flourish in Chios, they began importing them from Italy and zealously promoted their cultivation in areas with ample water supply that were not hit by strong winds. One such area was Kampos (the Plain), which was quickly turned into a vast orange tree orchard. The Chians, however, seeing how the orange trees flourished on the island, began to also import them from the countries of North Africa. It is worth noting here that, contrary to popular belief, the mandarin trees were not first imported by the Genoese. There is evidence that they were first imported around 1860-62 by the Chian family of Choremis, who brought them from India, cultivated them in their own fields and then expanded their cultivation throughout Kampos.
Kampos is basically an area with abundant groundwater that favors the cultivation of the "golden apples of the Hesperides," as citrus trees were known among ancient Greeks, although it is known that they are very sensitive. That is why the visitors who visit Kampos must navigate through a maze of streets around the orchards with their only guides being smell and imagination, as the orchards are surrounded by massive stone walls, whose purpose is to protect the crops from the cold winds that can destroy the trees. The harvesting is done by the farmers, who pick citrus fruits one by one, place them in plastic boxes and either sell them or take them to the juice-making factory of Chios, where they are turned into premium juice. For centuries, the oranges were sold by the piece.
After a rigorous quality sorting procedure, the sorters counted them in groups of five and delivered them to the merchants. However, the Germans introduced the method of weighing during the German occupation and the practicality of this measure has kept it alive until our days. The variety of mandarin produced in Chios is unique. The Mandarins of Chios are known as the best mandarins. The harvest has been threatened and destroyed several times by bad weather through the centuries, and the resulting loss of the financial resources this crop ensured made the farmers more inventive and resilient. Thus, oftentimes, in order to "break" the cold and protect their fruit from frost, farmers start small densely spaced open fires throughout their orchard. The rich foliage of the trees creates a green canopy that often manages to keep the warmth from the fires and salvage the fruit.
The citrus fruits of Chios were exported to Constantinople, the Black Sea, Smyrna, Egypt and throughout the East by various merchants who would charter ships for just this purpose. From 1930 onwards, when the first Cooperatives were established, exports were also made to many countries of Eastern Europe.
The uses of citrus fruits are not limited to simple consumption or juice extraction in the juice-making factory of Chios where they are used for the production of various kinds of soft drinks. They are also used for the production of sweet preserves and essential oils. Furthermore, the peels are given by the juice-making factory to farmers for animal feed of mainly dairy cattle, for which they are considered an excellent and nourishing meal.
The Chian ouzo was formalized quite early in the history of the island, and it played a predominant role in the social life of the island as a drink of men at first, but soon afterwards introduced to the table ritual as a welcome, greeting and appetizer drink. At the same time it became a customary accompaniment for seafood and fish. Chios abounds in spices and aromatic herbs, which help to produce a light and smooth ouzo, based on the classic anise and fennel in a background of coriander as well as the unique mastic, depending on the recipe. Clearly distinct from the local raki, called ‘souma’, which is produced with figs, the Chian ouzo is still distilled largely in small copper stills of traditional family firms. The Chian ouzo is produced by local families on the island that continue the tradition for many years. Its production has not been industrialized, it is not produced in large quantities and therefore is not easily found outside the borders of the island.
What is ouzo
The traditional Greek Ouzo is made from the alcohol found in marc or other local products, to which herbs and other ingredients such as coriander, angelica root, aromatic herbs, cinnamon, anise and lemon blossoms are added. This mixture is boiled in a pot and regulated by connoisseurs. The final preparation is cooled and stored for several months and then dissolved in approximately 80% or 40% alcohol. The homemade ouzo is usually made particularly strong with 80% alcohol. Ouzo is usually served as an appetizer drink, but also used in many cocktails. When Ouzo is mixed with water it becomes white and opaque. This is because the anise, when mixed with appropriate proportions of alcohol, dissolves and becomes transparent. When the content of alcohol decreases, essential oils are converted into white crystals which are opaque. Ouzo is under the protection of the European Union as the exclusive product of Greece. As a traditional product, it is subjected to half the tax than other spirits sold in the European Union.
The fruit preserves
Famous since antiquity for the excellent quality of its products, Chios produces abundant and various fruits. Grapes and figs were the basis of this variety, to which a number of other products were gradually added: almonds, pistachios, walnuts, apples, quinces, sour cherries, cherries, and later citrus fruits, such as bitter oranges, the world-famous mandarins of Chios, oranges, bergamots, citruses, etc. Many conservation methods have been applied to these sweets, with a view to achieving the longest possible period of fruit consumption. The safest and simplest method, which emerged, was their boiling and subsequent maintenance in some form of syrup. Depending on the herbs, spices or other substances added to the boiling water, several recipes have been developed. After the introduction of industrial sugar, the use of ancient Mediterranean sweeteners – honey, grape syrup, carob syrup, etc. – gradually receded. Great impetus was given to the preparation of preserved sweets, firstly at home, then at cottage industries, and later at larger and better organized craft industrial units, always however retaining the traditional recipes.
The Mastic sweet
Sugar came to us from the East and brought with it its secrets. Later, the Persian and Arabian recipes were blended with our own, in a very pleasant and tasty result. The Chios mastic, exclusive only to the island of Chios, was mixed with sugar to form the Mastic sweet, a different and fragrant form of vanilla toffee, also known as "submarine". This sweet has been widespread since the last century as a welcome sweet in the bourgeois homes of the Greek diaspora. This is particularly true in Istanbul, where under the name "White Sweet", it continues even today to be the official sweet of the Patriarchate.
A famous and remarkable Chios product is wine. According to the historian Theopompos, the son of God Dionysus, Oinopeon taught the people of Chios how to plant and cultivate vineyards and how to produce wine. The high quality wine produced here in the ancient times was known as “Ariousios Oinos”. The ships would transport and trade it in amphorae all over the known world. It was also famous during the roman and byzantine years.
Recently the production of Ariousios Oinos has been revived thanks to investments in wine making especially in northern Chios.
(Source: Spanos, Grigoris, Ariousios Oinos, the wine of Chios, Ariousios S.A., Chios, 2007)
Soft Cheese of Chios is a traditional island cheese. It is made of full fat cow or goat milk that is produced locally. This cheese is not excessively salty, and it is ideal for creative fried or grilled cheese dishes. It may also be consumed in salads or uncooked on its own. Typically produced in circular molds of approximately 900 g.
Chios soft white cheese is available in local groceries stores and super markets. It is also served as a local dish in most restaurants and taverns in the island.
Amanites is a kind of mushroom that grows mainly in the north region of the island. The best time to collect Amanites in Chios is in the autumn, after the first rains. They are usually found under pine trees.
Amanites are usually fried, and they are considered a very delicious meze for ouzo.
The Chian honey is considered among the best in the world because of the very rich and rare flora that is typical of the island. Three types of honey are mainly produced in Chios: The flower honey with a distinctive flavor and aroma of citrus fruit, the pine honey that is also known for its wonderful aroma, and the brighter and thicker thyme honey.