We’ve previously extolled the pleasures of Cretan cuisine at Athens venues like Kriti and noted that Crete has one of the highest life expectancies in Greece, thanks in part to its healthy food. So we were particularly intrigued by “The Island Where People Forget to Die,” a recent New York Times Magazine article on Ikaria, a Greek island in the Aegean that’s home to some of the world’s longest-living people.
The piece looks at a variety of reasons for Ikarians’ longevity, including their sleeping habits, regular exercise, close-knit community and relaxed lifestyle. But it’s the food part of the equation that really got us going. The NYT describes the islanders’ traditional diet:
Breakfast [was] goat’s milk, wine, sage tea or coffee, honey and bread. Lunch was almost always beans (lentils, garbanzos), potatoes, greens (fennel, dandelion or a spinachlike green called horta) and whatever seasonal vegetables their garden produced; dinner was bread and goat’s milk. At Christmas and Easter, they would slaughter the family pig and enjoy small portions of larded pork for the next several months.
Wild herbs have traditionally been used by the islanders to make tea:
Leriadis also talked about local “mountain tea,” made from dried herbs endemic to the island, which is enjoyed as an end-of-the-day cocktail. He mentioned wild marjoram, sage (flaskomilia), a type of mint tea (fliskouni), rosemary and a drink made from boiling dandelion leaves and adding a little lemon.
Culinary Backstreets’ Athens correspondent can attest to the Ikarians’ partiality to greens, as well as their laid-back sense of timing. “Friends once told a story of how they were in a taxi speeding to get to the port. They were already late, so you can imagine their surprise when the taxi driver pulled over and started collecting wild herbs,” she recalls. “They kept shouting at him that they would miss their boat but the driver just told them to chill out, and got on with his herb collecting. They got to their boat just in time.” (She also reveals that some residents of Ikaria are fond of another type of wild herb, one that is illegal in most countries…)
But the biggest reason for the Ikarians’ healthy lifestyle may be the island’s relative isolation, our correspondent notes. “Unlike other Greek islands, Ikaria does not have a lot of tourism: it is a 10-hour boat ride from Piraeus, the port of Athens. This is probably why it has been spared Western fast food, values and a faster pace of life usually associated with the sort of consumerism that goes hand-in-hand with Western influence. Ikaria remains largely agricultural and undisturbed by the outside world.”
The full NYT article on the long-living Ikarians can be found here. A related blog post includes recipes for several traditional Ikarian dishes.