Let’s Eat, Drink and Grow Old Together

Twenty years ago, in the early afternoon of December 25, I found myself marooned in the depths of the Sicilian countryside in search of a meal. Forgetting that in this part of the world no restaurant would be open on Christmas Day, my boyfriend and I had crisscrossed the island for several hours seeking sustenance, to no avail. Until we got to Enna.

As we drove slowly across the main square of this picturesque little town, we couldn’t believe our luck as we espied a small restaurant, brightly lit and filled with a cheerful diners seated along two long tables. As we peered through the window, a middle-aged man got up from the table, opened the door and and beckoned us in with a flourish. He apologized profusely for the fact that his usual menu wasn’t available, but hoped we didn’t mind having the Christmas meal the other guests were eating. Deeply grateful for the prospect of any food passing our lips, we agreed enthusiastically.

We were seated at a small table and the kindly signore proceeded to ply us with platter upon platter of seasonal delicacies that included pumpkin-stuffed ravioli, poached fish with a delicately seasoned cream sauce, a refreshing salad of fennel shavings drizzled with herbaceous olive oil and lemon juice, pistachio-stuffed chicken and the most unctuously frothy zabaglione I had ever eaten.

When we were full to bursting we wanted to ask for the bill, but no one paid any attention to us. Eventually I went over to the manager, now deep in conversation with his other guests, and tried to convey to him in broken Italian that we’d like to pay.

Looking horrified, he shook his head vehemently and said he wouldn’t take our money. Then, seeing my perplexed expression, he burst out laughing and exclaimed: “Buon Natale!” (Happy Christmas!). He explained that his restaurant was actually closed and that the diners assembled here were not paying guests, but his own family and that we, too, should be part of his happy clan—for this meal at least. Overwhelmed with gratitude at this stranger’s generous hospitality, we thanked him profusely and proceeded to exchange hugs and handshakes with everyone in the room before stumbling out into the twilit town square.

As we were about to drive off the signore came running after us, clutching a small box. Had we forgotten something? “My wife asked me to give you these—traditional Sicilian Christmas cookies,” he panted. “She baked them this morning.” A last hug and a “grazie mille,” then he scuttled back to his restaurant.

I’d like to think that this warm and generous man is now well on his way to becoming one of Sicily’s celebrated centenarians. For according to a new study by a team of researchers at the University of Palermo, one small region of Sicily—the Sicani Mountains—some 100 miles to the west of Enna boasts more than twice as many 100-year-olds than any other part of Europe (an average of 4.32 centenarians per 10,000 inhabitants, compared with 2 per 10,000 in the rest of Europe). One of the reasons for their healthy longevity is the convivial lifestyle we sampled that Christmas Day.

“The people we studied live in a healthy social environment mostly composed by relatives—sons and daughters or nephews and nieces,” Dr. Sonya Vasto of the Department of Molecular and Biomolecular science at Palermo University, lead author of the study, told me in an interview. “There is always someone who takes care of them; they are never bored or lonely.”

Not only do these ancient Sicilians live long (the subjects studied were between 100 and 107 years old), they do so while leading active lives and remaining “free from heart disease, severe cognitive impairment, severe physical impairment, clinically evident cancer or renal insufficiency,” the study found.

Just as important as their social context appears to be the diet of these long-lived Sicilians. According to Dr. Vasto, Sicilian centenarians eat little food (they consume an average of 1,200 calories a day) and their meals are modest: bread and a little milk for breakfast, small portions of pasta and vegetables for lunch and a light dinner of eggs and fresh cow’s or goat’s cheese, a little meat (generally chicken), legumes (peas, beans and lentils) or occasional fish, always served with plenty of vegetables which vary with the seasons since they are grown locally.

“For one month, they will eat the same two or three types of vegetables that the soil offers. The following month, it will be two or three different types of vegetables,” explains Dr. Vasto. It’s the same with fruit: “They eat fruit according to the season; they don’t eat apples in June, oranges in May or strawberries in October,” says Dr. Vasto.

The fruits and oil of locally-grown olives (cultivars include Nocellara of Belice, Biancolilla, Giarraffa and Ogliarola) may be another contributor to the Sicilian centenarians’ rude health. In addition to healthy monounsaturated fats, these oils contain vitamin E, polyphenols and coenzyme-Q whose antioxidant effects may offer substantial disease protection, Dr. Vasto says. Water is the main drink, with red wine occasionally accompanying meals.

A final distinguishing factor is the fact that the centenarians’ diets are low in blood-sugar fuelling carbohydrates. “Their diet has a low glycemic index because it’s low in refined carbohydrates—no white bread, not much pasta, no sweeteners, sweet beverages, canned food, frozen meals, cookies, cakes or snacks,” Dr. Vasto lists, adding that the centenarians they studied did not eat snacks between meals.

Interestingly—especially for island-dwellers—these super-healthy hundred-year-olds don’t eat much fish, usually considered a staple food in the Mediterranean diet. “The nearest town is 1½ hours’ drive away and they rarely get access to fresh fish,” Dr. Vasto explains. And because the people they studied don’t like eating food in tins, canned fish is not commonly eaten here.

(I wonder whether they derive the omega-3 fats their bodies require from leafy green vegetables, from the eggs of free-ranging pastured chickens and from the dairy and meat of grass-fed animals, known to have higher omega-3 concentrations than industrially reared farm animals?)

And so it appears that Michael Pollan’s pithy healthy-eating prescription—“Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”—is alive and well among the centenarians of western Sicily.

But as food habits around the Mediterranean—including Sicily—shift towards increased consumption of processed foods, high-glycemic carbohydrates, sugar and factory-farmed meat, eggs and dairy products, will their grandchildren live as long?

*Photos kindly provided by Sonya Vasto: The first picture shows Concetta Di Giorgio (97) and Ernesto Bella (102, photographed with Palermo University researchers Sonya Vasto and Claudia Rizzo. The second picture is of Vincenza Butera (106 years old).