In a new book, writer Diane Kochilas explores why “the small Greek island of Ikaria is home to some of the healthiest, most vibrant people on earth.” It’s a phenomenon I have previously written about here with an emphasis on the Ikarian diet. And although technically Kochilas’s new book is a cookbook, the recipes are interspersed with wonderful stories and insights about Ikaria and its people. As we head into the holiday season, we might do well to adopt a few of the characteristics of the Ikarian lifestyle—key among them, finding joy in the here and now.
Identified as one of the “Blue Zones” in a 2008 book by Dan Buettner, the island of Ikaria has been visited by physician scientists and many other groups attempting to try to understand why so many residents live to a ripe old age, often beyond 100. Diane Kochilas synthesizes this information into a kaleidoscopic patchwork of new interviews with older island residents and family members, as well as wonderful details of island recipes and the ways of life.
The original Blue Zones identified by Dan Bueltner were not quite as magical as the name makes them sound. Blue Zones were simply areas containing a higher-than-average population of residents living to be ≥ 100 years of age, circled in blue marking pen on a map! (If a different colored marking pen had been handy, perhaps we’d be discussing Pink Zones or Orange Zones.)
Although it was tempting for researchers to link the longevity to really healthy food, it was immediately evident that other factors are involved. For example, 100 years ago, life on Ikaria was not a paradise. Quite the contrary! Most older residents describe rather impoverished early lives with food being just the bare necessities. But a pattern emerged of enjoying life and taking advantage of what the land and surrounding seas can offer, without the stresses of modern life emerging elsewhere.
As I have mentioned in my previous blogs on the subject, there are no clocks on the island. People live in the moment, stopping to talk to a friend or neighbor, watching the sun rise or set, arriving several hours “late” for a planned meeting. But there are not really planned meetings. In addition, there are incredible “feasts of life” called panygyria, which occur in the evenings through the summer months. Again, no special start or stop times, and mostly running through the nights.
So what can one say about the food? Kochilas’s recipes and photographs make the food of Ikaria sound and appear especially delicious without being especially “healthy” or “health conscious,” in the common parlance of today. However, their diet does not include “junk food.” In fact, only in the last few years is there any access to fast food on Ikaria. Breakfast can include Greek coffee, linked to reduced heart disease and longevity. Breakfast can also include a little red wine watered down and used for bread dipping. Goat’s milk is popular and sometimes sage tea sweetened with pure local honey or petimezi (grape molasses). Foods which caught my attention included a spinach and rice dish, comforting bean and lentil soups, and special Ikarian pasturma or bastirma: air dried goat meat. It is probably important that meat on the island is mostly free-range goat or lamb.
All kinds of greens are widely used on Ikaria. But of note, these are often in the form of pastries or pies, such as Swiss chard plus spinach or onion and leeks. Not only does this enhance the deliciousness of the greens, it multiplies the ways in which they’re served – both cooked (in pies) and raw (in salads). Pasta and rice are major food items. Salt used in cooking is carefully gathered from rocky pools at the water’s edge. Especially tasty looking dishes include salt cod with tomatoes and onions, pan-fried fish with vinegar and rosemary, and local octopus—sweet-and-sour braised or braised with two wines.
As we head into the holiday season we must not forget the desserts! Ikarian desserts include delicious-sounding honeyed dough puffs, walnut-olive oil cookies dipped in honey, stuffed Lenten cookies and grape molasses chocolate cake.
A degree of indulgence is part of the Ikarian lifestyle. Theirs is not a rule-driven society fraught with deadlines and locked into strict schedules. Enjoying life, spending time with family, cherishing parents and grandparents as they get older, living in harmony with the rhythm of daily life are key aspects of the Ikarian experience. Are the genes of the families living on the island important? Maybe so. Is it something special in the soil and surrounding seas—are they especially healthful? Maybe.
Just living their vibrant lives is definitely key. I was reminded of the importance of “living in the moment” by a recent episode of the CBS news program 60 Minutes, which focused on the life-altering practice of “mindfulness.” Undoubtedly the remoteness and quietness of Ikaria help enhance mindfulness a lot.
So over the holidays, enjoy the special moments with your family and friends. Indulge a little: we will regroup in the New Year!