Food that Tastes Like Trees and Other Greek Lessons

Greek food? Yes, that was served at Hel’s Kitchen multiple menus back, but I’m playing catch up in the blog posts. Oof, it seems like a long time even though it was only a month. Yet the beauty of mastic never grows old – and that’s what I’m talking about in food that tastes like trees. 

Mastic is a spice made from the resin of a relative of the pistachio tree. The “tears of Chios” it comes in droplet form that you pulverize to use in cooking. There’s also a mastic fondant (here is a post on the fondant from The Tipsy Baker should you wish to read about the fondant version). Mastic is one of those spices that’s blessedly easy to describe, taste-wise. A 1998 article in the New York Times “An Elusive Flavor of Greece” notes:

“The subtle taste of mastic is hard to pinpoint exactly. Jim Botsacos, the chef at the restaurant, describes it as a combination of fennel, anise and mint. To me, it’s the taste equivalent of the smell of a pine forest.”

I’m not sure where the first half of that description comes from – it’s not subtle at all, it is the taste equivalent of the smell of a pine forest in a very not-subtle way. Does food redolent of pine forests sound tasty to you? Well, does a flavorful gin like (be still my heart) Barr Hill* sound tasty to you? I suspect it speaks to the same palate. If you don’t like that kind of gin then maybe you shouldn’t go out of your way to find mastic. . . or maybe you should so that you can give it one more chance.  

For Greek week I used the mastic in a flatbread, although desserts are the more common application. To make this dish, take flatbread bread (go ahead and buy some pre-made, don’t be obsessively “from scratch” like me), then add an almond version of this Food52 cashew sauce, bitter greens cooked down with a little wine and a little lemon, and a sprinkle of pulverized mastic. {Word to the wise – if you’re going to cook with mastic don’t use a spice grinder you intend to use on anything but mastic ever again. It’s a resin. It behaves as resins would and will never be cleaned (as far as I can tell). Mortar and pestle, whacking with a rolling pin, something else but not an expensive new spice grinder.} Here are some other recipes that I’ll play around with once I get my hands on more mastic and now that I’ve got a dedicated mastic grinder:

Mastic is by no means the only tree-tasting food I enjoy. In fact, opportunities abound. Larchenschnapps, or Larch Spirits, entered my life coincidentally at the same time as mastic. My parents brought it back from Austria as an Easter present. As you may have guessed, it’s a liquor made from larch, a deciduous conifer (a pine tree that loses its needles) and also the name of the doctor in Cider House Rules. One website for a producer of this fine spirit explains it this way:

“The classy fresh, slightly woody larch bouquet makes this a unique and special spirit. To produce the larch macerate, freshly picked larch shoots are steeped in alcohol for several weeks. After the precious ingredients of the larch have blended into the alcohol, the macerate is carefully distilled.”

It tastes like the winter version of Icelandic Bjork (drink, not singer), made from birch, and tasting more like late June than mid December. As luck would have it I don’t need to write a description of Bjork because I already did, and it’s in the preface to Discovering Flavor, a book that I’m still convinced everyone should buy. Said preface is linked online here.  

Now, we’ve got Larch Schnapps and we’ve got Bjork and where you find an herbaceous liquor, you’ll also find an equivalent honey (what, you’ve never heard that saying before? I’m pretty sure it’s well established). Honey is a whole big culinary topic, suffice to to say some regions of the world take it very seriously. Greece would be one of those regions. Greece is one of the few places to produce pine honey – a “honeydew honey” in which bees don’t make honey directly from the tree’s nectar, but instead use the sugary secretions of insects feeding on the pine sap. Which sounds gross and tastes interesting. I’ve only tasted one pine honey, which is difficult enough to find, and I’ve never tried the much lauded, especially rare Banilias, from the fir forests of Mainaloy in Arcadia, Greece, but I’d like to. Doesn’t just naming it make it feel desirable? The rare fir honey of Mainaloy? 

If you want to day dream about mystical honeys, here’s a guide to notable local honeys from Modern Farmer and here is an interview about Greek honey production from Slow Food international.

I realize that food tasting of trees is only one particular subset of Greek foods. And I didn’t even get to the Mahlab, a spice made from the pits of the St. Lucy cherry. Granted, by the time I reached that particular spice in my cooking, I’d already done my spice grinder in with the mastic, so pretty much the things I baked with mahleb tasted like. .  mastic. I’ve still got some, though, and a new spice grinder, so soon there will be more experiments. In the meantime, I recommend to you The Art of Greek Cookery for all your classic Greek recipe needs. All I know about Greek cooking is what I learned in one week of cooking from the recipe collection of the good women of the St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church circa 1963. I recommend it.

*Apologies to Stonecutters Gin, also a favorite, but not the particular flavor profile I’m talking about here. 

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