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In the tiny Italian town of Cuccaro Vetere, some 150 kilometers south of Naples, villagers are surrounded by nature and an incredible variety of local fruits. The town, which is in Campania’s province of Salerno, has just over 500 inhabitants, and – even more than their nature’s bounty – these residents are known for one thing: their long lifespans.

Here in Cuccaro Vetere, the celebrated “Mediterranean diet” – a regional set of culinary practices and traditions that UNESCO in 2013 designated as a Cultural Heritage of Humanity – is simply called food, and researchers believe it is why the villagers live to a ripe, old age.

Nicoletta Damato, 78 years old, is living proof of how important what we eat is to the human body. Her serene attitude almost speaks for her, but she coyly gives us one piece of advice: “The secret is to live in a place like this, in the midst of nature, far from metropolitan chaos.”

“Fast food doesn’t exist here, and we don’t want it.”

“My family, like most of the local families, leads a simple life. Not very hectic, and made up of simple things, such as the food we eat: vegetables, mushrooms, chestnuts, wine, etc,” she adds.

“We rarely go to restaurants, and we mainly eat what we grow ourselves. Fast food doesn’t exist here, and we don’t want it,” Nicoletta says.

In a couple of important studies from the 1990s and early 2000s, the Mediterranean diet was pinpointed as having a preventive effect against cardiovascular disease. However, it is not yet clear what elements present in the diet make this occur. An Italian-Swedish research project is trying to uncover this mystery by mapping the eating habits of the Cilento region. This area, which includes Cuccaro Vetere (as well as Ikria, Greece and parts of Sardinia, among other places), is designated as one of the “blue zones” of the world, where an unusual number of people manage to live longer than in other places.

At the end of September 2021, I followed a group from Sweden between the ages of 50 and 80 who went to Cilento and ate only local food for a week as part of a project studying the Mediterranean diet. A comprehensive set of samples were taken at the start and end of the project from each individual, including blood and stool tests, and numerous other checks were made, including height, weight, body mass index, blood fat, blood sugar, and blood pressure. The results were astounding: after only a week of eating in Cilento, small improvements were revealed.

The relationship of Cilento’s residents with food has always been a relationship of love. There are people who, even after reaching the age of 80, still want to work the fields. They continue to enjoy the fruits that nature has given them.

Some say that local wine is another of the secrets of the long life of the Cilento people. This is confirmed by Francesco Luongo, a 53-year-old man who lives in Cuccaro Vetere and who has been involved in the production of artisanal red wine for many years. “Here, the land has something special compared to other places. The food and wine we produce are a plus for all of us. Simple products, low in calories, but that make us live well and for a long time.”

About 50 km away from the village in Cicerale, the Corbella farmhouse has become an obligatory stop over the years for lovers of healthy food. The first thing that strikes people when they arrive is the silence. You have the feeling of being totally surrounded by its natural beauty. There isn’t even phone service out here, so the possibility of being distracted by technology is zero.

The 63-year-old chef Giovanna Voria works in what she calls a food paradise. She is considered the most authoritative ambassador of Cilento and the Mediterranean diet. Her cuisine is made up of wild herbs, legumes and seasonal fruits: A mix of simplicity and goodness that has led her dishes to the Venice Film Festival, the fencing world championships in Catania, and to tables in New York, Venezuela and Brazil.

Those who arrive at her farm are mainly people who live in the neighboring areas, who know and appreciate her cooking concept and want to have an unforgettable experience. At the Corbella farmhouse, it is impossible for us not to order the cheese, cured meat and fruit appetizers, or a plate of bruschetta with cheese, ricotta and walnuts.

The smells begin to delight the senses even before the waiter comes to serve us. Our eyes are immediately stimulated by the bright colors that make up the dish, something only the products of nature can do. Usually, after appetizers, Giovanna offers her diners a plate of lagane made with black chickpea flour, a type of fresh pasta typical of southern Italy. Of very ancient origins, lagane dates back to the time of the ancient Romans and from them over time other shapes have originated, such as tagliatelle. The lagane is followed by a plate of chickpea flour polenta with ciambotta, a vegetable stew.

Studies and research on the Mediterranean diet are a very difficult art, because there are many variables to take into consideration. The one thing that seems certain at the moment, however, is that the more natural the food, the greater the benefits for human health. Cilento and its people feel they are clear proof of this.

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Alessio PaduanoAlessio Paduano

Published on April 28, 2022

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