Ikaria: Food and Life in the Blue Zone
Ikaria, in the Aegean Sea is known for its beautiful coves and mountain outlooks but also for the longevity and health of its people. It is one of the world's five 'Blue Zones' the others being: Loma Linda, CA, USA; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy and Okinawa, Japan. People who reside in these five places have a life expectancy 10 years longer than virtually anywhere else in the world and reach the venerable age of 100 at rates 10 times greater than elsewhere in the world. There are also significantly lower rates of chronic illness like heart disease, cancer and diabetes but also people suffer less from dementia and depression. Teams of anthropologists, demographers, epidemiologists, and researchers have studied these five 'Blue Zones' to identify the elements that might explain such longevity and wellbeing. They found that the lifestyles of all Blue Zones residents shared 9 specific characteristics, one of which is diet.
Born to Greek parents, Meni Valle has always been fascinated by her family’s traditions of cooking and eating. In Ikaria, Meni collects traditional recipes from across the island that encapsulate the best of Mediterranean food: vegetables, beans, whole grains, small amounts of meat and fish, a couple of glasses of wine, and plenty of olive oil. But she also tells the stories that make up Ikaria, where life is all about taking time: time to cook, to eat, to nap, to spend with family and friends, to enjoy and to appreciate.
You first visited Ikaria in 2017 and now return yearly. What is it about the island that keeps drawing you back?
While I went to Ikaria mainly to learn about the food, I have learnt so much more about joy. The moment I stepped off the aeroplane on my first visit I felt the magic of the Greek summer, and the promise of long relaxing days to come. I noticed how grounded my feet felt in Ikaria, an indescribable connection to the earth.
This beautiful Greek island in the Aegean Sea is named after Icarus, the mythological figure who fell into the surrounding sea when his wax wings melted in the sun. With a population of just under 8500, it is a nature lover’s paradise surrounded by crystal blue water and with lush hiking trails leading to villages nestled on the mountainous coast.
The Ikarian lifestyle and cuisine, like the landscape, has been preserved. It is as if it has stopped in time, a gentle and beautiful slow pace. The people of the island are proud of their way of life, which speaks to the longevity of their traditions and their lifestyle. It is almost as if Ikarians find modern life amusingly frivolous and are quite content with their simple yet rich old-world existence.
A slow and beautiful pace that connects you to the earth draws me back every time and most of us would agree that there are few things that can compare.
Many of us live such busy lives. Even if we do take the time to cook properly sometimes it seems as though it is not enough. What is the philosophy of life in Ikaria which promotes such longevity and wellbeing?
Ikaria is a textbook example of the Mediterranean diet in its holistic sense: pure and honest food enjoyed with a community.
Ilias and Thea are the owners of the inn I stay at. Over my morning coffee, I ask Ilias the question he has been asked many times over. ‘What do you think is the secret to longevity?’ He answers simply, ‘Meni, here in Ikaria, we do not try to add years to our life. Instead we add life to our years. We make the most of every day.’ Thea explains that the philosophy on the island is all about taking the time: the time needed, the time required. This doesn’t just mean time to form community and connections, but also reducing stress by taking time to rest. They do not watch the clock.
Ikaria with all its natural gifts, has always moved to its own rhythm. The locals say, ‘Time does not use us, we use time as we need.’
Ikaria 14/3/2014, Aggathoposis CC BY-NC 2.0
Greek myth tells us that Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, was born on Mount Paramos on Ikaria. Is wine still an important part of life there?
According to legend, Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and celebrations, was born on Mount Pramnos, Ikaria. The strong red wine Pramnios is said to be the gift Dionysus left to the people of the island. It is the first wine in the world with a geographical name, with roots in ancient Greek history and in the writing of Homer.
With its roots in ancient history, drunk by warriors and gods, the wine remains one of the secrets to Ikarian’s longevity. The people still honour Dionysus during the panayiri celebrations and drink their wine the way the ancients did by diluting it with some water. Wine is always enjoyed with food and in the company of friends, whether it is the daily meal, a celebration or at a panayiri and always in moderation.
Which recipe stands out to you as quintessentially Ikarian? Something that embodies the spirit of the community and place?
The simplicity of Soufico is one of Ikaria's most iconic dishes. It was traditionally cooked every Saturday, the day when the ovens were on for the weekly baking of bread. Leftovers were used in omelettes, or sometimes sausages were added.
The story told is of a woman asked by her husband. ‘what are we going to eat today?’ She goes into the garden to collect vegetables and places them in her apron to prepare a simple dish in the kitchen. Once cooked she replied, ‘Soufica’, which means ‘I left you some’.
Listening to these stories and imagining collecting vegetables by the apronful, preparing by hand, such joy, the calm and magic of Ikaria’s soul.