The population of Campodimele, 80 miles south of Rome, can expect
to live to an average age of 95. It’s down to what they put on their plate.
By Tracey Lawson
Come to Campodimele in the early morning, when the air is still cool and the sun spills over the Aurunci peaks. Park up near the statue of San Padre Pio, where the village starts, and follow his gaze across the valley view. And that’s when the silence starts seeping into your soul, and the stillness soothes your heart. And under this wakening sun and the endless sky, it seems that you really could live for ever.
It’s easy for such a notion to enter your head on arriving in Campodimele, the Italian mountain community that welcomes visitors with a signpost describing itself “Il Paese della Longevità” (“The Village of Longevity”). And not just because of the statistics, which show that its inhabitants live unusually long lives. It is the elderly villagers themselves who conjure notions of life never-ending. Because they not only live long – they live healthily and actively into old age, too.
Venturing out at first light on a summer’s morning, the silence is broken by a sound like a cricket gone crazy. But I know by now that it’s Gerardo, zipping around on the Vespa he’s still riding at 78 years old. “Passaggio?” he inquires as he continues the 3km tumble down the mountain. He is going to examine his field of wheat, his morning ritual in the summer months. I decline his offer of a lift and off he buzzes, slaloming around the hens that are jay-walking across his path.
This village back road is known as le galline – the hens – because it’s where the ramshackle stone hen houses sprawl, and on any morning you can catch Maria shooing her birds from their roosts, chasing them down the hillside on her 83-year-old legs. “Guarda!” she says as I pass by, opening her cupped hands to unveil two perfect, blush-brown eggs.
I wander up the road to the 11th-century walls that encircle the borgo, the medieval heart of Campodimele, and slip through the stone archway on to the old piazza. It’s a riot of staircases made from stone, geraniums tumbling from terracotta pots, and already the scent of tomatoes and basil is floating on the breeze. Assunta, now over 70, stands by her kitchen door, waving the Moka coffee pot, and beckoning me in. “Mangia!” she says, offering me a breakfast of amarena jam tart, made with the bitter cherries she has taught me how to stone and preserve.
This is the everyday stuff of life in Campodimele, the mountain-top community that has attracted attention from doctors across the globe due to the longevity of its residents. Figures released by the local council in 2009 found that the average life expectancy of both men and women at that time was 95 years.
That compared to an Italian average at the time of 77.5 for men and 83.5 for women, and a European Union average of 75.6 for males and 82 for females.
Long fascinated by the value of food as preventative medicine, my love affair with the village began with the intention of writing an article about what these people eat in order to live so long. But I was so enchanted, so overwhelmed by the hospitality of its inhabitants, that in 2007 I made Campodimele my home.
In doing so, I discovered that diet is indeed a key part of longevity here – but there is much more to the equation than that. The recipe for a long and healthy life allo campomelano is best described as a delicious cocktail of complementary factors. Some are unique to the village – but others are transferrable to Britain, give or take a few adjustments to our lifestyle and minds. In this way, it may be possible to improve the chance of living a longer life – and, more importantly, to be sure we live well.
The simplest and quickest way to bring a health-enhancing bit of Campodimele to our lives is to recreate it on our plates. The traditional diet is that of cucina povera, the poor kitchen of the peasant farmer. Low in meat and almost devoid of red meat and butter, it tends to avoid saturated fats, so is an ideal basis for heart health. Protein comes largely from beans and pulses, including the cicerchie, a small, angular pulse, particular to the village.
Known in Italy as la carne dei poveri, the meat of the poor, it offers the double advantage of being free from cholesterol and rich in soluble fibre, which helps lower cholesterol in the bloodstream. Pietro Cugini, Professor of Internal Medicine at La Sapienza University in Rome, who has conducted a number of studies of the village, describes the diet as “hyper-Mediterranean”; in other words, typical of what is widely accepted as one of the healthiest diets in the world.
As such, its larder happens to be bursting with fresh and raw ingredients that can help protect the heart: olive oil, oily fish, garlic, shallots, onions – and red wine to offer a daily injection of polyphenols. The diet also helps protect against cancer – rich in fruit and vegetables with their antioxidants, vitamins and minerals; high in fibre, which protects the bowel.
Campodimele is traditionally a peasant farming culture, and while many villagers hold down jobs in nearby cities, almost everyone grows at least some of their own food, be it on a vegetable patch or on a farm.
Of course, cultivating your own food requires a great deal of physical activity – which brings health advantages in itself. Prof Cugini is convinced that the regular activity required of the agricultural life plays a key role in assisting health and mobility into old age.
Investing in agriculture, on whatever scale, also means surrendering to a seasonal life – which has brought me physical, sensory and psychological joys I could barely have imagined amid the chaos of my UK city-dwelling, commuter life. The cycle of nature imposes a rhythm and a structure to the day, the season, and the year. Many harvests are celebrated with a sagra, a thanksgiving festival.
So the farming year imposes holidays and enjoyment upon your diary – no question of working through your annual leave here. And depriving yourself of fresh asparagus or cherries or apricots throughout the colder months makes their arrival at the table an event to be anticipated, savoured, appreciated – and missed once the crop is done.
But more than this, embracing the seasonal life means, by implication, letting go of the control we think we have in our 24/7 society – and realising that in fact we never are, and never have been, in control. In checking his wheat field every day, Gerardo is facing the fact that if it rains too much, or if it doesn’t rain at all, his family will not have enough wheat for bread and pasta in the year to come – what better way to gain a sense of perspective of your place on earth than that?
Ogni cosa ha suo momento. Everything has its time. After three years in Campodimele, I am convinced that the agricultural life is responsible for the fatalistic attitudes that I see in so many people. They expect to work hard, and reap the rewards – but when it comes to the inherent sadnesses and tragedies of the human condition, and the apparent vagaries of fate, I have never heard anyone complain that life isn’t fair. It is just itself – and the cycle moves on.
This fatalism both lends itself to, and is supported by, the religious formation that almost everyone receives. Around the age of seven, most children start a lengthy programme of preparation for their First Communion. Even those parents who do not attend church appear keen for their children to undergo this – and not for the convenience of social convention. As one Italian mother of the christenings-weddings-funeral approach to church put it to me: “This way they have to think.” About moral issues; about the purpose of life – and the fact of death; about developing their own philosophy for living, in line with, or in reaction to, a clearly defined moral framework.
It is this perhaps that helps Italian children develop a social presence which comes from knowing who you are. And a critical perspective on life. I have been astonished – and delighted – at some of the moral philosophising to come out of the mouths of 12-year-olds I know – although the one that gave me most pause for thought was from the daughter of a neighbour who, when I was newly arrived and scrabbling to find a kitchen implement she needed, smiled indulgently at me and said, with infinite kindness, “Con calma” – “Take it easy”.
The Campomelani work very hard – you do not carve Eden out of chalky rock faces without grit and sweat. But they know how to take it easy, too. And they love to be in company. So lunch is a two-hour ritual not to be missed. In the hot months, the sun dictates a siesta mid-afternoon. Evenings are for the ritual passeggiata towards the valley-view piazza and a drink at the Moonlight bar. Or gathering at the hen houses to put the birds to bed, then perching by the 11th-century walls to swap the news of the day.
Relaxation and sociability are integral to the structure of life here. Open house is the norm. And it’s common to find three generations of family living side by side, or in the same household.
It is impossible to measure the contribution these factors may or may not make to long and healthy lives, but sociologists and psychologists are increasingly studying the impact of personal relations of all kinds on physical and mental health. Which elderly person would argue that it is not good for the well-being? The Campomelani are in no doubt that the stimulation of neighbourly social support and the emotional and practical support of family nearby help.
So there is much we can do to improve our chances of longevity by changing some of the environmental factors of our life.
But as life in Campodimele has taught me, some gifts only nature can bestow. Because for a few people here, longevity is in the genes. Some Campomelani benefit from a genetic disposition to low blood pressure, and this is a dominant gene. So while it’s too bad for us, if you marry and make a family with a Campomelano who carries it, your offspring are bound to inherit the gene.
Many people have asked me if this is the true explanation for the average longevity of the Campomelani. The answer is, only in part. Prof Cugini suggests that the genetic factor accounts for only 30 per cent of the population’s tendency towards long life. The other 70 per cent is down to how they live and eat. Which means that many of the secrets to living longer are in
their – and our – hands and our heads. And very often on our plates.
Tracey Lawson / telegraph.co.uk
© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2011/2012