A few years ago, at Christmas, I received a mystery gift from someone unknown. It was a truly wonderful book about the power of diet in triggering extraordinary longevity.
The book was “A Year in the Village of Eternity“, by Tracy Lawson.
Just last week in the middle of a monstrous move of our house and home to a wonderful new abode in the middle of a Florida forest, while unpacking my library, out popped my dogeared copy of this extraordinary, true tale of an unknown village in Italy where people literally “Live Forever”.
Please join with me in reading about this timewarp town and then find our thoughts and formulas that can recreate that nearly timeless gift right in your own self and your own life.
A Year in the Village of Eternity
When they do die, it is generally of old age.
The village records of Campodimele say that the average life expectancy of both men and women is 95 years and home to an extraordinary number of centarians (people who live more than 100 years.) Compare that with the Italian average of 77.5 years for men and 83.5 for women, and a European Union average of 75.6 years for males and 82 years for females.
Tracey Lawson, an Englishwoman and writer, heard of this amazing time-warp village and decided to live there for an entire year, four seasons, fifty two weeks, 365 days and nights, to see what was the magic that was bestowed on this place and its inhabitants.
The book is not some dry and emotionless report, far from it. Lawson writes with an intimacy of insight that captures the actual fragrance of the forests and plants that engulf the mountaintop. You can practically hear the jingling of the goat bells as she describes a day in the life of the village goat herder as he sings to his flock before they are milked each day.
More than the findings and statistics, Lawson was intrigued by the descriptions of the villagers and their daily lives. Other journalists who had visitied Campodimele portrayed the elderly residents as unusually vigorous for their ages; pensioners who rode push bikes, herded goats in the mountains, worked in the fields from dawn until dusk growing almost all their own food. Reports also told of how octogenarian men whiled away sunny afternoons playing cards under the elm trees in the piazza while their womenfolk gathered at the hen houses, collecting their supplies of freshly laid eggs.
Levels of heart disease, obesity and cancer were practically non-existent. These people it seemed, lived lives longer than any in Europe, but more significantly, they appeared to be able to look forward to a healthier and more active old age than many people anywhere else in the world.
The village’s very name is evocative, deriving from the Latin campo meille, a “field of honey”, for this is the region which cultivated the bees that brought honey to the tables of the Roman Empire.
When you arrive in Campodimele, it indeed reveals the archetypal Italian rural idyll – a cluster of stone houses perched high on a sun-drenched mountain top, narrow, winding streets encircled by turreted medieval walls; an eleveth-century church with a soaring bell tower; and a piazza or town square with a truly breathtaking panorama across the valley below.
And all around it evidence of what makes this place so special, elderly farmers clambering over olive groves, old women mounting ladders to cut grapes from pergola vines, grandmothers striding up steeply-stepped alleyways while balancing bundles of kindling on their heads. And one or two old gentlemen of 103 years, sitting down to their minestrone soup for lunch with a glass of village wine.
A message from Aldo Lisetti, mayor of Campodimele
“It is my belief that there are various factors that support the health and longevity of our community, including the pure mountain air and relatively zero stress levels of our rural life. Perhaps some of our residents even enjoy a genetic predisposition to long life. But, the main thing is our diet.
Fresh, seasonal and chemical-free fruit and vegetables…only a little meat and a tiny amount of fish. And simply cooked at home to a recipe handed down for not just centuries, but thousands of years.”
Already now The Mediterranean Diet has been hailed as the most healthful and life-promoting dietary program anywhere in the world. In Campodimele, they call this cibo genuno, which means ‘genuine food’ in English.
Listen to this from the beginning chapter in the book:
For cibo genuno is an all-encompassing philosophy – a regard for food that requires that produce be 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.
Such food is ideally grown with no chemical input, harvested at the peak of perfection, eaten locally, fresh and simply prepared. Preferably eaten in season, it can also be eaten out of season and is still considered cibo genuno so long as only natural, or non-chemical methods of preservation are used: salt, sugar, oil, vinegar; freezing, home-canning or vacuum packing.
In short, cibo genuno is the antithesis of the ready-meal, E-number-rich culture high processed and chemically colored and preserved culture which has such a strangehold on the everyday eating habits of so many people in the industrialized West, and which is beleved by many to be the main conrtibutor to the massively high levels of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer in the Western world.
In Compodimele, the way of eating is the epitome of cibo genuno – just as it has been for centuries.
Many people here still fanno il contadino – that is they retain the small holding traditions of peasant farmers to a greater or lesser degree.For many that means a large orto, a vegetable garden, adjacent to their homes, where the grow seasonal fruit land vegetables all year round, while holding down full-time jobs in spheres unrelated to agriculture.
Others, including many retired people, fanno il contadino on a full-time basis – growing wheat for bread, keeping a goat for cheese, cultivating a vine-covered pergola for wine; sowing, reaping and raising almost everything which comes to their tables.
Pietro Cugini, Professor Internal Medicine at La Sapienza University of Rome and Academician of Lancisi’s Academy in Rome, has carried out several studies into the health of the Campomelani. He has tested the biological rhythms and blood pressure of three generations of families, and examined lifestyle elements like their working and walking habits. His studies also cover meal timing – the regular schedule typical of many rural cultures – and dietary habits, such as the intake of macro- and micro-nutrients, salt intake, consumption of coffee and alcohol, of the entire population, from ten year olds to those aged over one hundred.
Professor Cugini believes that genetic traits account for 30 per cent of their long life expectancy. The remaining 70 per cent can be attributed to several other factors – their lifestyle and its strong synchronization with the geophysical cycles (rising at sunrise, retiring at sunset); plenty of physical activity into old age; a fair climate amid the Aurunci Mountains, free of air pollution; and of course their diet of “genuine” foods and their nutritional habits. All of which results in blood pressure significantly lower than the Italian average.
It is impossible to quantify the role food plays in longevity, but Proessor Cugini describes the Campomelano diet as iper-mediterraneo – hyper-Mediteranean. That is, it exemplifies a diet widely regarded as one of the healthiest in the world, the Mediterrranean diet now being recognized by UNESCO as part of humanity’s cultural heritage.
The Campomelani eat lots of legumes – beans and pulses such as bortolotti, chickpeas, “cicerchie,” a small pulse particular to the area, and scalogno (Ascalonia caepa), a variety of onion, very rich in antioxidant agents, that was imported by ancient Romans from the city of Askhelon in Israel. Known in Italy as “la carne dei poveri,” ‘the meat of the poor’, beans and pulses are high in proteins, but free of cholesterol, which can harm cardiovascular health.
The scarcity of bovine products in the Campomelano diet is also significant, says Proessor Cugini. Campodimele is mountain territory, ideal grazing for goats, but not best suited to cows. Therefore, beef and butter, which are relatively high in saturated fats, have traditionally featured minimally in the kitchen here. Meat is more likely to come from the chickens that many families keep for eggs and whose flesh is both lean and and relatively low in cholesterol, thanks to the freedom these birds enjoy to wander the road and hillsides. Boar and hare, which live wild in the mountains, are also brought to the table by hunters, and again are relatively lean meats.
Professor Cugini points out that the Campomelani eat a relatively large amount of fish compared to most mountain communities, thanks to the village’s proximity to the Tyrrhenian coast – pesci azzurri, ‘azure fish’, as the Italians romantically refer to the schools of oily fish that include sardines and anchovies. These are rich in the omega-3 fatty acids linked to protecting heart health.
The level of salt in the diet is extremely low – just four grams daily as opposed to the 6 gram daily allowance recommended by many Western health authorities. High levels of salt and its constituent, sodium, in the diet are of course associated with high blood pressure, which can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
And naturally the Campomelano diet is rich in two other elements synonymous with the delights of the Italian table: extra virgin olive oil, which is rich in monounsaturated fats and locally made red wine, which is rich in polyphenols, may both protect the heart. Professor Cugini has also found that the drinking of coffee, wine, beer and hard liquor is very limited, as are smoking and eating of sweets.
In short, if we were setting out to design a diet to promote health and longevity using foods widely available in in the Western hemisphere, it might well resemble the eating habits of the Campodimele. Their meals typically begin with the primo, the first course of carbohydrate-rich egg-free pasta called laina, often simply dressed with olive oil and vegetables, followed by the secondo, the main course of protein-rich beans or pulses, fish or lean chicken, along with the contorno, the vegetable side dish – perhaps of wilted leafy greens, peppers or aubergines. The main course is always followed by insalata, salad, to cleanse the palate – perhaps a simple green salad just minutes out of the orto – and then a cheese, perhaps ricotta made from the milk of mountain goats or mozzarella di bufala produced in the nearby towns of Itri, Lenola and Fondi. Then fresh fruit, eaten as it was on the plant, and on special occasions, a little dolce or sweet. All accompanied by moderate amounts of red wine, and cooked not in saturated animals fat, but in olive oil.
But while the merits of the Campomelano diet are evident, there is no denying that many other factors contribute to health and longevity here.
Professor Cugini points out that the tendency to work the land means that people lead, and have traditionally led, lives which are extremely physically active – a factor which he says is without doubt important to good health.
And elderly people here continue to live sociable lives, many enjoying the support of extended families and the easy day-to-day contact afforded by a small, close-knit community, an active church and sunny climate, which encourages outdoor activity and that quintessentially Italian social activity – the evening passeggiata, a stroll around the piazza. Experts are increasingly recognizing the role of active social structures in the promotion of a healthy old age.
Professor Cugini also believes that some inhabitants of Campodimele benefit from a genetic predisposition to longevity, a conclusion he reached after leading a study into blood pressure patterns among elderly residents, their children and their grandchildren. This study was undertaken as part of his collaboration with the project From Womb to Tomb undertaken by Professor Franz Halberg of the University of Minnesota. Having monitored the blood pressure of more than ninety elderly villagers over a twenty-four-hour period, Professor Cugini found that the mean level in older people was comparable with the healthy levels seen in much younger people. Their progeny too had remarkable healthy blood pressure.
Professor Cugini’s fondness for Campodimele and its people is obvious from the way he talks about their easy sociability, their wonderful “cucina” and ther disponibilita – their willingness to help those keen to study their way of life. He points out that there are many communities across the globe which boast longevity levels higher than that of Campodimele, but that the village is ideal as a model because such a high proportion of its residents share a homogeneous lifestyle, including diet.
As you read the pages of the book, each day is described in detail and then the entire year, month by month unfolds. Lawson’s book is like a gift from God to show us just how life can and should be lived and enjoyed to its fullest.
In Lawson’s own words,
“I came to Campodimele hoping I might learn how to live longer, but discovered something much more important – how to live well. In doing so, I have been privileged to enjoy the friendship and hospitality of many people…
The book is not the story of a single chronological year, but collection of tales gathered over almost three years. It has only been possible thanks to the unlimited kindness and helpfulness of all of the residents of Campodimele, who invited me not just to their tables with a trust of warmth, but into their very lives.
I can never thank them enough for what they have given me – their extraordinary recipe for a long and well-lived life.”
Eat in Campodimele tonight
Here is a simple, wonderful recipe from the book. Eat like this and live forever.
Spaghetti with Bozoletti, Garlic and Red Chili
Brozoletti are not broccoli, but leafy turnip tops – known as rapini in the USA. The leaves are best boiled, but the tiny florets are also delicious pan-fried, as this brings out their almondy taste. If you can’t find them, try tiny heads of purple-sprouting or tender-stem broccoli instead.
400gm (13 oz) dried pasta
3 or 4 good splashes of extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 handfuls of small broccoli or rapini florets, washed
Crushed red chili
Fine sea salt
Bring a large pan of salted water (never use tap water) to boil; add the pasta and boil until just firm, about 5-8 minutes.
While the pasta is boiling, heat the oil in a large, deep frying pan over medium heat and gently fry the garlic for one minute. Add broccoli or rapini and cook for two minutes, stirring constantly to avoid burning the garlic. Add a few pinches of the hot red chili.
When the paste is Al dente, drain it and add to the pan of garlic and broccoli/rapini. Remove from the heat, and stir ensuring every stand of pasta is coated in the sauce. Serve immediately in warmed bowls.
Our formulations to help you live forever.
As always, here’s to your Contagious Health!