Pistacia lentiscus is an evergreen, shrubby tree that grows around the Mediterranean. It’s related to the tree that produces pistachio nuts, but instead of nuts its main product is its resin, known as mastic. Based on photos (as far as I know, I haven’t seen one in person) the tree itself is pretty, compact in form, with a thick, gnarly trunk, looking a bit like an olive tree. Its leaves are a darker, brighter green than those of an olive tree. It blooms with inconspicuous yellow-green flowers, but produces big, showy clusters of red fruits.
The resin is initially transparent, but turns a cloudy, slightly translucent light lemon yellow as it hardens. It’s used for a lot of things, including chewing gum, varnishes, food flavoring and, of course, perfumery.
I first experienced mastic as the dried granules of resin, which provide a unique chewing-gum experience. You can chew the same granule repeatedly and it doesn’t really lose its flavor, which is actually more an odor than a taste. When I was a kid I used to pick dried pine resin off of tree trunks and chew it. Mastic reminds me a little of that resin, but is harder in texture and not pine-like in flavor. Both types of resin soften up some from the heat of the mouth, but the mastic remains quite “chewy”. It becomes brittle and hard after chewing, but will soften again if chewed a second time. It probably sounds silly to recycle a piece of chewing gum, but why not, if it retains its pleasant properties?
The taste/smell of mastic resin is quite complex and unique. It’s bitter and green in the same way galbanum is, but without the cigarette-ash note that’s in galbanum. It’s as if galbanum had been purified and made into its better self. It’s got a light lemony note along with the bitter, resinous scent, and something that reminds me of the astringent, salty, underlying flavor of pistachio nuts, without the nuttiness. To me, it seems like an elaborately carved or fabricated 3-D filigree construction of brittle ivory.
The essential oil has many of the same fragrance properties as the resin, but it’s a little smoother and not quite as brittle. I really like the oil and, even though it’s relatively expensive, I think I would use it instead of galbanum if I made some of my fragrances over again. As it is, I used it in the newest one, Sonnet XVII, to lend a dry, inorganic, minerally, almost salty aspect to the top notes. Now that the blend has mellowed, I find that the mastic provides an immediate counterpoint to the sensual, moist, cushiony softness of the osmanthus, which has risen to appear at the outset as well as in the heart.
Mastic oil has become one of the staples of my lab, and I imagine I’ll find myself using it in many future compositions.
What is your favorite resinous smell? Leave a comment and be entered in a drawing to win a small sample of mastic essential oil along with a sample of Sonnet XVII.
[Photos of tree and resin granules adapted from Wikimedia]