Friday, 7 March 2008


“Cooking is at once child's play and adult joy. 
And cooking done with care is an act of love.” 
Craig Claiborne

One of the memories I have from my grandmother’s house is the smell of baking whenever she used to cook her delicious cakes, pastries and biscuits. The kitchen could be dark and mysterious with the heater on while the rain fell from wintry skies outside. The oven contributed to the cosiness of the kitchen those evenings when I did my homework on the kitchen table. Or it could be the sunlit mornings of summer when the baking was done early before the room was attacked by the ardour of the sun.

The aroma was often the heady floral scent of vanilla beans, conjuring up images of some dark green and moist jungle with the beat of drums in the distance (I used to read adventure stories at the time!). Often, it was the spicy sweetness of cinnamon in long rolled up pieces of bark and full of stories of long sea voyages and pirates and swashbuckling adventurers defending the precious cargo of spices from the Indies. Other times, quite exotic spices, all mixed up – the nutmeg and the allspice, the star anise and cloves, cardamom and tamarind.

Sometimes the herbal, resinous smell of gum mastic, closer to home, gathered from the island of Chios and ground up in a mortar pestle to make the fine powder used in sweets. I was always given a piece or two of the precious tear-shaped gum to chew. And as soon as one placed the clear, hard drops in one’s mouth, they softened and one could chew them like gum. A fresh, invigorating, slightly woody, aromatic and a tad bitter taste – more suited to maturer palates, but nevertheless enjoyable.

Here is a recipe of my grandmother’s. They are the typical Greek rusks, made from a sweetened, bread-like dough, but baked twice so that they achieve that hard yet crumbly texture typical of rusks. This recipe uses the gum mastic typical of a lot of Greek sweets. It is available in Greek shops and delis. If you cannot get hold of it, flavour the rusks with a mixture of cinnamon and cloves. 1.5 teaspoonful of ground spices should be enough. This is a big recipe and if you make like it is here you’ll be in the kitchen for several hours of labour intensive baking. You can always halve the recipe.
GREEK RUSKS (Paximathakia)
2 cupfuls light vegetable oil
3 cupfuls caster sugar
1.5 cupfuls milk
1 glassful freshly squeezed orange juice
0.5 teaspoonful finely ground gum mastic
self raising flour (about 2 kg)

Whisk the vegetable oil in a mixer until it becomes milky and then add the sugar, continuing to whisk, adding the orange juice gradually. Whisk well until the sugar is dissolved and add the milk little by little, mixing all the while. Add the ground gum mastic and the flour in small lots until the dough becomes soft and elastic and just comes off the hands. Knead well. Shape into small thin flattened loaves, about 3 cm wide and 30 cm long. Score into slices, about 1.5 cm wide. Bake in an oven until golden brown. Remove from the oven and cut into slices along the scored lines. Bake a second time, until the rusks are dry (it may be necessary to turn them over so that they dry out evenly). Once cool store in an air-tight tin, whereupon they will keep for several weeks.

The Mastic tree (Pistachia lentiscus) grows on the island of Chios in Greece. Although the trees and shrubs grow all over the island, the production of gum mastic resin is carried out only in the medieval villages in the southern region of Chios called Mastichochoria (=Gum villages). This is the only place where gum mastic is produced, thus explaining the very high price of this product, which is exported all over the world. The Mastic tree is related to the pistachio nut tree, Pistachia vera.

Gum mastic is obtained by the incising of the tree trunk and branches with a sharp tool. The gum mastic resin then exudes through these incisions. The word “mastic” is derived from the Greek verb “masso” which means “to chew” (cf: masticate).

Mastic is soluble in ether and alcohol, but insoluble in water. There is evidence that even low doses of mastic gum (1 g per day for two weeks) can cure peptic ulcers very rapidly. This is probably due to the fact that mastic is active against the bacterium Helicobacter pylori.

Gum mastic is used in dental products; it cleans the mouth as well as strengthening the gums. Gum mastic is also used in perfumery and creams. It cleans the skin and brightens the complexion. Both the scent and taste of Mastic is pleasant, and Mastic is also used to flavour sweets and cakes.

Mastic is much valued in the paint industry; it is added to varnishes and artist oil colour. An oil is obtained by alcohol extraction of the resin. Used as incense, the scent of Mastic is fresh, slightly lemony, and very purifying in its quality. Although expensive, it should be tried by all incense lovers. Mastic blends well with a lot of scents, including benzoin, chamomile, eucalyptus, juniper, lavender, lemongrass, marjoram, and sage.

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