By Fiona Sims
I’m looking at a picture of Professor Pes walking down a sunny Sardinian country lane with his great uncle, Pascale Frasconi. What’s so special about that, you say? Well, his uncle is 110 years old. There’s no stick to keep him steady; no arm to support him.
A few years back the world’s media went into a tailspin after Gianni Pes, a professor at the island’s venerable Sassari University, published a paper on longevity. In a nutshell, he had identified a cluster of villages in the central mountainous region of Sardinia where 24 per cent of the population lived to a hundred years old or more, three times higher than the rest of Europe.
At its epicentre is Villagrande, where Pes talked to pretty much everyone - about lifestyle, diet, family history, etc, amassing 16,000 records over four centuries, compiling the most exhaustive database every undertaken for a single village. He called the area The Blue Zone – a reference to the colour of the marker pen he used to circle the centenarian hotspot at the eureka moment, after completing the first stage of his research.
It’s a much-used term now, of course, and there’s even a new book, The Blue Zones Solution, written by National Geographic regular Dan Buettner, who has collaborated with Pes on the wider longevity picture elsewhere in the world.
This is where I saw the picture of great uncle Pasquale, the driving force behind Pes’s tireless research. Copies of the book are stuffed into his battered leather briefcase, one well-thumbed copy inscribed by Buettner “To the Grandfather of The Blue Zone”.
So what did I learn from Pes, as we chatted at the recent Porto Cervo Wine Festival with its longevity theme, where invited Michelin-starred chefs fashioned something fancy out of humble ‘longevity’ ingredients at a series of dinners; and where Sardinian winemakers showed off their spicy, polyphenol-packed reds? That yes, after genetics, lifestyle, environment and social factors, we can extend our lives with a few tweaks to our diet - some obvious, some not.
I learned that if I want to be a centenarian then I need to climb the stairs more – much more, no more dawdling on escalators. I also need to hit the hills for longer periods. And I need to stop scoffing so much Parmesan cheese, and all the other obvious things that we eat too much of – red meat, eggs, butter and cream.
I also need to start making my own barley sourdough. Pes spent hours chatting to these incredible old folk, unravelling their daily movements; scrutinizing their recipes – literally. The bread they bake, called pistokku – a long-lasting loaf made of barley flour, Pes put under the microscope to better study its tighter starch granules (it’s a sugar release thing).
And yes, I even need to drink less wine. I don’t even hit my recommended units per week (wine trips aside), yet I’m still drinking too much according to Pes, who is sceptical about the whole red-wine-lengthens-life thing.
A medical doctor by training, he advises no more than one small glass of red wine a day (that’s 125ml, not 175ml), preferably made from the Sardinian Cannonau grape, as it has particularly high levels of resveratrol and proanthocyanidins.
The only thing I am doing right, according to Pes, is eating vast quantities of veg. The daily diet of your Sardininan Blue Zone Shepherd revolved around a bowl of minestrone. And I say revolved, because things have changed in those isolated mountainous villages in recent years. They have cars now, they watch telly, and their waistlines are bigger, like everybody else. “They don’t live so long now,” says Pes, mournfully.
And then there’s a fresh sour cheese called casu ajedu that the shepherds and their families used to make and which they lived on, which Pes believes is the real key to Sardinian longevity - I’m on it. Watch this space.
It’s difficult. We sympathise. Despite being an entirely different shape and size we have an uncanny ability to turn up in the same outfit (usually black) and order the same dishes. We both wear glasses, swathe ourselves in scarves and fancy Daniel Craig.
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© 2015 Fiona Beckett & Fiona Sims (the2fionas.com), photography © Gary Latham, website by Scend