Italian Longevity Secrets

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in: Book Reviews

Losing weight and exercising top most people’s lists of New Year’s resolutions, though these are the resolutions least often kept.

These facts make a book like “A Year in the Village of Eternity” (Bloomsbury, 2011) all the more relevant, although it is far from being a diet or exercise book. Rather, it focuses tightly on the people and daily life of Campodimele, a tiny hill town in the Italian province of Latina and region of Lazio, which most people zoom past as they take the train or the A1 highway from Rome to Naples, not far from the ancient Appian Way.

Campodimele’s claim to fame is that its residents live long, healthy lives, a fact proudly proclaimed by the sign welcoming visitors to Il Paese della Longevità — the village of longevity. Others have called Campodimele Il Paese dell’Eterna Giovinezza — the village of eternal youth.

These sobriquets make for good ad copy, but are not what Tracey Lawson’s book is about, although she dutifully reports the statistics: 111 of the 671 people who call Campodimele home are between 75 and 98 years old, and the average life expectancy of both men and women there is 95.

Lawson begins by interviewing the village mayor, and quotes a number of studies by physicians, professors and researchers. But she soon sets aside the statistics and experts and considers a few simple things: Cars are not allowed in the old city, so people walk everywhere. Clean air rises up to the village from the Mediterranean Sea, only about 10 miles away. Everyone tends gardens, orchards, vineyards and fields; they keep chickens and goats; they hunt for game. They cook from scratch, and put up food for winter. They live near family and friends and visit them often. They drink wine, gather for festivals, and enjoy life.

Simple, healthy

Reading about the lives of the Campomelano reminded me of the recent New York Times article about the people of Loma Linda, Calif. That town too has been studied by researchers trying to determine the secret of the people’s health and longevity. But it soon becomes clear that you don’t need a blood pressure cuff or a Ph.D. to get to the reasons behind long, healthy lives.

Lawson returns again and again to the people’s daily physical activities in Campodimele — herding goats, gathering wood, looking after chickens, harvesting olives — and to “cibo genuino,” real food that is “grown, harvested, prepared and served with respect for every link in the chain: the land, the produce itself, the people who eat it, and the wider environment.”

Lawson’s forays into the fields, gardens, markets and kitchens of Campodimele show us how simple and enjoyable this diet and lifestyle can be, gently folding tasty nuggets of recipes into poetic vignettes of the people and food traditions of Campodimele.

At 7 a.m. on a July morning, for example, Lawson writes, “the sun spills like lava over the mountain summits, flickering like a flame up the skinny tree trunks and flashing fire amid the foliage.” This is when potatoes are harvested, some eaten straightaway in Patate con Fagiolini — a potato and green bean salad with fresh parsley, a few cloves of garlic, lemon juice and a splash of olive oil — and others later in pasta and potato soup.

Classic cucina povera

These recipes, and most of the others in Lawson’s book, are classic cucina povera — the cooking of the poor — paradoxically found most often now in fancy restaurants. But what cucina povera meant, and can still mean to anyone, is using everything that can be found in the woods (wild asparagus, mushrooms, chestnuts), grown in a garden (tomatoes, garlic, peppers, zucchini, herbs) or orchard (fruits and nuts), raised in the yard (chickens, ducks, rabbits, goats), or grown in fields (corn for polenta; wheat for bread, pizza, pasta). And it means using them in simple ways that result in fresh, flavorful, healthful, satisfying foods.

Sure, growing and/or making your own dinner takes time, but Lawson says that in Campodimele, “time spent preparing good food is regarded as an investment in health and happiness.”

And cucina povera is often faster than fast food. While there are some detailed recipes that go on for multiple pages, Lawson acknowledges that many of the recipes in her book are “barely a recipe.” They’re as simple as Insalata Condita, a dressed salad of fresh greens, olive oil, vinegar, and salt, or Pinzimonio, raw vegetables dipped in olive oil, vinegar, sea salt and crushed hot pepper. (See recipe below)

Campodimele is also known for its small chickpea-like cicerchie, which look something like old yellowed teeth, and are a key ingredient of zuppa della nonna. Cicerchie, along with other dry beans, were known as carne dei poveri, the meat of the poor. After the 1950s, cicerchie were in danger of extinction, but have been rediscovered by chefs and by Campodimele itself, which in 1991 started a special feast of the cicerchie to bring more visitors up to the town. The festival is in August, just as the cicerchie harvest gets under way.

No secret recipe

“A Year in the Village of Eternity” may seem at first glance another year-in-the-life narrative like “A Year in Provence,” or “Under the Tuscan Sun,” or a regional/historical cookbook like Pamela Sheldon Johns’ “Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking.” But Lawson’s book is a hybrid — more personal and practical than the title or the first chapter would suggest, with more than 100 recipes, plus a glossary.

And the secret to eternal life? Sorry folks, there is no secret elixir, no magic pill or yoga pose; just diet and exercise, plus close social ties.

And the secret to keeping your new year’s resolutions? Grow some food (even a pot of basil on your windowsill or patio), eat whole local foods, make exercise part of your daily life, and enjoy time with family and friends. All these things are within reach in Campodimele, Loma Linda and wherever you live.

Sedano Fritto (Celery-Leaf Fritters)

Ingredients

100 grams (3.5 ounces) Italian ’00′ Doppio Zero flour, or plain white flour
200 ml light beer
Fine sea salt
One egg, beaten
Two large handfuls of celery leaves, roughly chopped, and two ribs of celery, cut into 2½-inch batons and squashed to break their fibrous spines
Three or four splashes of extra virgin olive oil

Directions

  1. Mix the flour and beer in a bowl. Then beat in the egg, a splash of olive oil, and a few pinches of salt.
  2. Add the celery leaves and batons, and coat well in the batter.
  3. Heat the olive oil in the pan, then fry the celery batons for a couple of minutes on each side, until they are swollen and golden.
  4. Next, drop spoonfuls of the celery-leaf fritters into the pan, flatten and fry for a minute or two on each side, until golden and cooked through. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.

Top photo composite:

Tracey Lawson. Credit: Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

“A Year in the Village of Eternity” book jacket, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing



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