What could be more poetic than a plant with myriad proposed medicinal benefits, a long history of cultural significance, a sudden disappearance and an unexpected comeback?
The Pistacia Lentiscus is a sizable bush, unspectacular in many ways, with small truly green leaves and reddish berries that ripen into an almost black color. They seem to sprout up everywhere that nothing else has been planted and carpet the undulant hillsides throughout Sardinia. It is a hardy plant, drought and fire resistant, with strong roots and an ample, rounded appearance.
It is not endemic to this island and grows throughout the Mediterranean. Where the land lies otherwise bare, you can find the plains and rocky hillsides full of Pistacia Lentiscus (commonly known as lentisk, or mastic). However its culinary significance here is now mainly folkloric - while most houses in Sardinia have an entire storeroom of homemade products (wine, olive oil, preserves, mirto, etc), it's extremely rare to find someone who makes lentisk oil. So it came as a surprise to us to find that entire economies of other small islands have been based around the lentisk plant for centuries. In Chios, a Greek island famous for the bushes, the main export is mastic gum, a thick resin that is harvested in late summer. It is rather laboriously collected and cleaned and then sold as a natural gum or as an ingredient in anything from cosmetics to sweets. When chewed it turns white and pliable and, after a first bout of bitterness, releases a pleasantly woody flavor, like pine or cedar.
No one we spoke to had heard of mastic gum here in Sardinia, but the plant was, up until the 60’s, commonly used to make cooking oil throughout the island. Though many people have mentioned making lentisk oil during the war years* as a cheaper or easier alternative to olive oil, it seems more plausible that olive oil and lentisk oil were both produced and used side by side in the same households in varying degrees. In any case, the production of lentisk oil was surely no easier (it included collecting all the necessary berries & leaves in the same day they'd be pressed as well as hanging from a rope on the ceiling to stomp on the tender leaves and branches until the oil was expelled).
So why did it die out? There is evidence of lentisk oil production from the Bronze Age on; it was used in kitchens for frying, cooking meats and dressing salads and vegetables until the 60’s. It is credited with everything from fighting gum disease and bad breath to easing abdominal pains to encouraging longevity. And yet, something effectively wiped out the production of this oil in the last fifty years. Today a liter of lentisk oil can top 400 euro, while a liter of top shelf olive oil hovers around 30 euro. But it's only been in the last few years that Sardinian lentisk oil has begun to be available commercially. It is now reappearing on the horizon, from restaurant menus to essential oil companies to natural skin care lines, however the demand seems to heavily outweigh the production.
It is, unfortunately, a familiar story. Sardinia is a land that has suffered through rather extreme poverty for centuries. The sense of society was very strong and the traditions of the island had always been passed down with care. But when the last economic boom hit Italy in the 70’s, travel was easier, the industrial revolution had made its mark and life in the first world was bountiful! Cars, electricity, plumbing hit the island like a hurricane and the quality of life surged for most of the inhabitants. The unfortunate side effect was that whatever was ancient began to be viewed as merely old. Tools, techniques, knowledge and materials all but disappeared without much notice. And some things - like how and when to make lentisk oil - continue to dwindle to this day. At the same time, Sardinians find themselves at the bottom of another economic slump with no new training or experience to pull themselves up. Most of the wealth that poured in 40 years ago came from blue collar jobs which, while they assured the islanders basic comforts at the time, did not provide any new skills for when those same factory jobs would disappear 15 years later.
Can it be that the future of Sardinia, then, could be deeply rooted in its own past?
*As a side note, it seems that the "war years" were particularly long in Sardinia, as most people include the 50’s and 60’s in this period; perhaps we can accept the inclusion by reasoning that, though no bombs were dropped in this period, the inhabitants were still fighting against starvation, sickness and poverty.