An island shaped like a peanut, 50 kilometres long and less than eight kilometres from the Turkish mainland, the Aegean island of Chios greets visitors with a certain cautious dignity. Here tourism is not the overwhelming preoccupation that disfigures so much of Greece. There are no resorts and few hotels. Most of the bays and beaches bask summer-long in undiscovered privacy; the peaceful fishing villages are disco free. The Chians prefer it that way.
After Corfu, Chios is the Greek island I know best. I love driving the empty roads in the north of the island, roads that swoop and soar over fire-scarred yellow mountains and grey limestone plateaux, passing through isolated villages peopled almost entirely by the old. Their sons and daughters live overseas or in Chios Town, but the elderly remain, devout, conservative and protective of traditions. Aghia Gala is one such village. The gravel track that leads there slithers around plunging hillsides high above the sea before turning inland into a precipitous valley. Across the chasm, halfway up the cliff face, is a tiny Byzantine chapel. Far below, in the heat and silence of the early afternoon, you can hear a stream beneath the poplar trees. At the back of the chapel a curtain hides a deep cave where the daughter of the Emperor Constantine Monomachos lived, in the eleventh century. She was afflicted with leprosy. Look up at the roof of the cave and you see a droplet of opaque white water beading a nipple of rock. Legend had it that this was the milk of the Mother of God. That’s why the town is called Aghia Gala – Saint Milk.
Then there is Anavatos, a ghost town of abandoned stone houses, perched upon a spear of rock, three hundred metres high; and Volissos, where a municipal plaque on the ruined Venetian castle reads Homer Lived Here. There are the deep valleys of the northern coast where the last of the ancient pine forests of Pityoussa have somehow escaped both drought and fire, precipitous slopes of tall trees and purling streams, where the evening light hangs like honey between the mountains. And then there is the peaceful harbour of Emborio, close to the southernmost tip of the island. Its beaches of smooth, black volcanic pebbles that clatter like porcelain underfoot have been a wonder since the bronze age, and were widely used in decorative outdoor mosaics by the Genoese nobility of Chios. Today, their commercial heirs, the Chian shipping families, have built villas in the surrounding hills. It is likely that their collective influence will keep the village out of the hands of developers.
Emborio’s glory days came during the centuries of Turkish occupation, when it served as the port for the mastic trade. For some as yet mysterious reason, southern Chios is the only place on earth where the resinous sap of the mastic bush congeals into transparent, colourless, nuggets of hard gum that glitter in the dazzling sunshine as if someone had flung a handful of diamonds into the foliage. Famous for 3,000 years, its delicate, alien flavour is a mixture of pepper, cloves, melon rind and coal tar, and the women of the Sultan’s harem in Istanbul chewed it constantly, to sweeten their breath and whiten their teeth. It’s also one of the more arcane flavours used to make Turkish delight. Thanks to the mastic groves, Chios enjoyed preferential status under the Ottomans, until the Greek rebellion of 1822. Some say the Chians were reluctant freedom fighters, that men from Samos declared the revolution on their behalf. Whatever the truth, the Turks took a swift revenge on the island, slaughtering 30,000 men, women and children, and carrying off another 45,000 into slavery. The scale of the tragedy astonished Europe. Delacroix’s painting, The Massacre of Chios, was widely reproduced. Driving over the mountains today, past hillsides still marked with long-abandoned terraces, it is clear that the island never really recovered.
The last time I visited Chios, I bought a little pouch of mastic diamonds from a woman who was drying them on a cloth by the roadside. The rest of her crop, and that of everyone else she knew, was sold to the Metaxa brandy company to be turned into a sweet spirit – Skinos Mastiha Spirit. It’s clear, not as thick as some liqueurs – as viscous as Cointreau perhaps – and it perfectly captures the unique and uniquely indescribable flavour of gum mastic. I’m delighted to say it is currently available at the LCBO (CSPC# 91033, $34.25). A few of our more adventurous mixologists have played with it, but I like it neat and chilled in a tiny ornamental liqueur glass, sometimes garnished with a twist of tangerine zest, and a bowl of unsalted pistachios alongside. One of the iconic flavours of the eastern Mediterranean.