Gum-Mastic-MA-art - 7/21/08
"Various Uses of Gum Mastic in the Middle Ages" by THLady Jutte Haberlein.
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Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Various Uses of Gum Mastic in the Middle Ages
by THLady Jutte Haberlein
Since ancient times the mastic trees of the Greek island of Chios have produced a wondrous resin. Traded throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, in the middle ages the resin known as gum mastic, or mastiche, was used for numerous and diverse purposes including medicine, varnish, flavoring in food, and personal hygiene.
The mastic tree or bush (pistascia lentiscus) grows well in warm, dry climates, but only produces high quality resin when grown on Chios, an island off the coast of Turkey. The resin is extracted in late summer and autumn by making slashes in the top layer of bark. The resulting hardened drops of resin, called tears, are collected and graded by size and color.
For centuries, gum mastic has been a staple trade item. Amphorae containing mastic residue and bowls of burnt mastic used as incense have been found in excavations of Tell el-Amarna in Egypt. These artifacts date from the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom (1364 – 1347 BC). (Stern et al 458) It was known to the English by 1150, and they had a word for it in Middle English, “whit-cude.” (Lewis et al 531) In “A List of the Tolls at the Port of Colibre, 1252,” the toll for a cargo of mastic was 2 solidi. In 1453, after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, Chios was obliged to grant the Sultan a generous supply of mastic. (Louis 69) It was a part of the cargo on the ship carrying Christopher Columbus when he was shipwrecked near Lagos in 1476. (Mann) In 1493, following his first voyage to the Americas, he penned a letter to Louis de Santangel in which he describes the riches of the New World:
…but with the mastic is would be well to be concerned, because there is none of it except in the said island of Chios; and I believe that they derive from it quite fifty thousand ducados, if I do not remember badly. (Las Casas 145-148)
Finally, and speaking only of what has taken place in this voyage, which has been so hasty, their Highnesses may see that I shall give them all the gold they require, if they will give me but a very little assistance, spices also, and cotton, as much as their Highnesses shall command to be shipped; and mastic, hitherto found only in Greece, in the island of Chios. (Dickey 50)
It is possible that Columbus, being Genovese, had lived on Chios, and perhaps had been born there. The island was under Genovese rule at the time; and the journal of Columbus’ first voyage to America contains numerous references to identification of mastic trees on the islands he explored, and exhibits knowledge of the botanical culture of mastic on Chios. (Las Casas 134-147) Unfortunately, Columbus had mistaken the American gumbo-limbo tree, which produces turpentine, for pistascia lentiscus. (Griffenhagen 271-272)
The essential oils contained in Chios mastic are α-pinene, β-myrcene, limonene, and linalool (Daferera et al 511-515). Each of these is used in the manufacture of cosmetics and personal hygiene products to contribute fragrance; i.e. pine and citrus scents. Pinene is also a major component of turpentine.
When used as a flavoring agent, mastic has been variously described as tasting of lemon, licorice, and turpentine - a strange association of unlike flavors. The essential oil components pinene and limonene would lend turpentine and lemon flavor respectively. Licorice might be explained by mistaken identity, as mastic is often used in making the Greek licorice-flavored ouzo, but is not responsible for the licorice taste which comes from anethol. (Berlow Dec. 2003)
Uses in Food
In powdered form, mastic was and still is a popular ingredient in Middle Eastern cookery. It was used to flavor cakes and cookies, syrups, sauces, and meat dishes. An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th Century, translated by Charles Perry, contains two recipes mentioning mastic as an ingredient:
Dish of Meat with Walnuts and Mastic
Cut up the meat, after boiling it, and put with it half a dirham of mastic, pepper, cinnamon, lavender, garlic, rue, a little vinegar, oil, salt, whole onions, head (and) greens (or: whole green onions) and a little water. When you have done this, pound walnuts smoothly and pulverize them until they are white and thickened and throw into the pot and stir until they give out their oil and serve on walnut leaves; cover the contents of the pot with an egg and pour it out, sprinkle with pepper and spices and serve it, God willing.
Formula for Making a Syrup of Mastic
Take three ûqiyas of mastic, powder it and put it in a bag, then take a ratl of mint and cook it, covered with water, until its substance comes out. Take the clean part of it and mix it with three ratls of sugar and honey, and cook all this until it takes the form of a drink. Drink two ûqiyas of this with three of hot water. Its profits: for the stomach and for digesting food; it cuts vomiting and binds the bowels, and fortifies the liver: it is the utmost in this.
In the first century, Pedianus Dioscorides wrote of mastic cures in his De Materia Medica, which continued to be used throughout the middle ages as a primary medical reference:
Mastichinum is made of Mastich beaten small, it is good for all[diseases] in the womb, gently warming, binding, mollifying, as also for the Scirrhi iniecti circa stomachum, & for the Coeliaca & Dysenterica, cleansing away the spots upon the face, and causing a good colour. The best is compounded in the Isle of Chios. (Gunther 18-19)
About 900 AD, the Arabic writer Rhazes in Liber de medicina ad Al-mansorem mentions mastic to settle the stomachs of pregnant women, “Lost appetite can be restored by eating acrid things in small quantities, such as onions, mustard, and the like. To chew mastic and white incense also helps, as does eating quinces and pomegranates, sour apples, and limes.” (Weiss-Amer 14)
The Trotula, a medieval compendium of medicine for women, gives this recipe for a salve for “itching and excoriation of the pudenda”:
Take one apple, [Armenian] bole, mastic, frankincense, oil, warm wine, wax, and tallow, and prepare them thus. We should place the apple, cleaned of both the exterior and interior rind and ground, on a fire in the pot with the oil, wax, and tallow; and when they have boiled, we put in the mastic and frankincense, both of which have been powdered. Afterward, it should be strained through a cloth. (Green 97-98)
Gilbertus Anglicus, a 13th century physician, wrote that mastic was an effective treatment for disorders of the spleen. (Handerson 41) The 16th century physician Roger Frugard cites mastic as a treatment for spasms resulting from wounds. (Rosenman 146)
Mastic in its unprocessed form as “tears” of resin was also popular in Middle Eastern cultures as an oral cleanser and deodorizer. Whole tears were chewed to release the freshening pine scent, just as chewing gum is used today to freshen breath. Indeed, to the ancients, “…the unique taste of mastic was indissolubly linked with the idea of fresh breath and clean teeth, just in the same way that the idea is linked with peppermint or spearmint in the minds of many modern westerners.” (Dalby, “Empires of Pleasure” 151)
“In Siren Feasts, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort is quoted, “…The Sultanas consume most of the mastic that goes to the Palace. They chew it, all through the morning, on an empty stomach, both to pass the time and to sweeten their breath.” (Dalby 207) The playwright Ben Jonson also referred to the chewing of mastic in his play The Devil is an Ass, “Some grains of mastic will preserve the breath pure, and so free from taint...” (Griswold 54)
The Manual de mugeres en el qual se contienen muchas y diversas reçeutas muy buenas, an anonymous book of 16th century Spanish recipes edited by Alica Martinez Crespo, includes numerous formulas for soaps, tooth cleansers, menstrual remedies, hand creams and balms, hair-removing waxes, and mouthwashes containing mastic.
Uses in Art
Mastic was also a popular ingredient in medieval varnishes used on paintings and musical instruments, and in producing inks for illumination. Ceninni describes a lengthy process whereby ground lapis lazuli is mixed with mastic, pine rosin, and wax to make a “plastic” mass. The blue color is extracted from the mass by soaking in lye and pouring off the colored liquid. (Ceninni 36-37) The 16th century alchemist Girolamo Ruscelli, writing under the pseudonym Alexis of Piedmont, gives a recipe for varnishing stringed wooden instruments such as lutes and violins:
Take gum-mastic 2 ozs., Venetian turpentine 1 oz., melt the mastic on a light fire, adding the turpentine, let it boil for some time, mixing them continuously, but not long enough for the varnish to become too thick. Put it away out of the dust. To use it, warm it in the sun and lay it on with the hand. (Ebersole 17)
Preparing Selected Products
To illustrate a few of these uses of gum mastic, I decided to present the natural tears, and to make the salve for itching, the beverage syrup, and a varnish. For all products I obtained tears of mastic by mail-order from a company on the island of Chios. In period, this and most of the other ingredients would have been available for purchase from an apothecary.
Upon receiving the order of mastic, I immediately popped a tear into my mouth and began to chew. The initial experience was a little unsettling, as chewing caused the mastic to crumble into tiny bits and release a wave of turpentine flavor. I continued to chew, and found that the warmth inside my mouth caused the crumbles to gradually soften and collect together. The turpentine taste diminished, leaving a pine/lemon taste remaining. The chewed gum does not have the elastic quality of chicle, but still has a similar texture. I found the taste to be rather pleasant, but experimentation with other human subjects did not yield the same result.
A Salve for Itching and Excoriation of the Pudenda
For this recipe, I obtained the beeswax from a craft shop, and olive oil, an apple, and wine from a grocer. Rendering tallow from beef or mutton fat is a lengthy, smelly, and wholly unpleasant chore; therefore I decided to purchase mutton tallow, which was used in period and can currently be purchased from merchants specializing in black powder firearms. In period, Armenian bole was available from an apothecary and would also have been in the illuminator’s inventory, as it is used to make gesso for the application of gold leaf. (Lehmann-Haupt fol. 4r) Neither the tallow nor the bole was available locally, so these were also purchased by mail-order. The frankincense, luckily, I had on hand. It had been part of a Christmas gift book containing gold flakes, frankincense, and myrrh.
I began by peeling and coring the raw apple, which I then ground fine. I speculated that the salve used equal proportions of tallow, beeswax, and oil to create the ointment base, since no proportions were specified. In period, an iron pot over an open fire would have been the most likely method of boiling the ointment. I do not possess an iron pot; and due to fire restrictions, cooking over an open fire was inadvisable. Instead, I used a stainless steel saucepan and a coil hotplate.
I had to speculate again regarding the proportion of mastic and frankincense to use. Both resins were dear in period, and not exactly cheap now. I decided to use one ounce of each, as that was the amount of frankincense I had available. Ground in a mortar and added to the hot oils, the resins quickly dissolved into the mix and released their pine scent, for which I was grateful. While tallow is stable and will not turn rancid, it is still not very pleasant to smell.
Having melted the resins into the ointment base, I proceeded to add the wine and bole. I used claret, which was commonly available in period. I added two ounces, and observed that the apple appeared to soak up most of the wine. I then added about a teaspoon of bole to the mix. The bole, being an earth and clay-like in consistency, did not mix readily with the oils and was difficult to disperse. I then strained the mixture through several layers of cheesecloth, which removed the apple and appeared to remove most of the bole as well. The recipe is silent on when the bole should be added, and I decided from this experience that it should be added to the salve after it has begun to solidify, so that it would remain mixed.
I poured the hot salve into a glass bottle with a cork stopper, and set it aside to cool. Since I do not suffer from the affliction for which it was prescribed, I cannot vouch for its effectiveness; however, the application of oil and mud (the bole) to itching skin would be soothing, and the anti-bacterial properties of mastic would likely have helped alleviate the cause of the itch.
Syrup of Mastic
3 ûqiyas of mastic
1 ratl of mint leaves
3 ratls of sugar and honey
To make mastic syrup, I began with the Arabic measures used in the recipe. One ratl is equivalent to 12 ounces and one ûqiya is equivalent to one ounce. Reducing the recipe by one-third, I ground one ounce of mastic into a powder and tied it up in several layers of cheesecloth. I placed this packet in the aforementioned saucepan (for the same reasons as with the salve) with four ounces of fresh mint leaves, and added water to cover the leaves. I then boiled the leaves and mastic. Here I learned an important lesson – do not use your best cookware to experiment with substances with which you are unfamiliar. The mastic softened, then liquified and began to ooze out of the cheesecloth into the cooking water and thence onto the sides of the saucepan, where it clung like glue. I was finally forced to chill the pan and quickly scrape the hardened mastic off to clean it.
After boiling the mint and mastic, I strained the liquid through cheesecloth. To this I added six ounces each of sugar and honey, which I boiled until it formed a syrup. This I cooled and poured into a clean glass bottle with a cork stopper. When mixed as directed (two parts syrup to three parts hot water) the resulting drink was predictably sweet, minty, and slightly piney.
2 ounces of mastic
1 ounce of turpentine
Lastly, I prepared a varnish of mastic and turpentine. Using the two-to-one proportions of the Ruscelli recipe, and wanting to make only a small sample, I measured out one ounce of mastic and ½ ounce of turpentine. Having learned the lesson about using my cookware for experiments, I put the mastic and turpentine into a glass saucepan I do not use for cooking anymore. I heated the mixture over the hotplate, as before, and outdoors to ensure adequate ventilation during the process. I brought the varnish to a boil, as instructed, but found that this resulted in the incorporation of air bubbles in the varnish. I am not familiar with varnishes or applying varnish, but I found that having bubbles in the product did not yield a satisfactory coating on the wooden disk I dipped into the product. The recipe does state that the varnish should be warmed in the sun before use, which I interpret to mean that it should be reheated over a low heat before application. I returned the bubbly varnish to the burner over a low heat and gently re-melted it. Much of the bubbling dissipated as the product was heated, but not all. I dipped two more wooden disks into the clearest part of the varnish in the pan. The varnish clinging to the disk still had some bubbles and was not self-leveling, resulting in a bumpy coating. It seemed to me that it would have been preferable to heat the mixture slowly and avoid introducing bubbles in the first place. Part of the problem, however, could have been the small amount of varnish I was preparing. Perhaps a greater volume of varnish would have made it easier to prevent the bubbling.
Among the many products traded throughout the medieval world, gum mastic was highly valued owing to its versatility and rarity. Because of that rarity, more accessible and less costly alternatives have taken its place in the Western World, but in the Middle East it is still held in high regard. Its medicinal properties are once again gaining recognition, and it continues to lend its unique flavor to the food of the Mediterranean.
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