IKARIA, Lessons on Food, Life, and Longevity from the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die, is US-raised Diane Kochilas‘ latest treasure-trove of recipes about her parents’ native island. The recipes and research in the book are gathered throughout her life, but what breathes life into the book is her first-person account, her true understanding of the island’s social and cultural history and her insider’s knowledge of Ikaria’s secrets. When Kochilas first set foot on Ikaria in the early 1970’s as a 12 year-old New York kid who was “inured to sticky urban summers, insipid American food, and strict curfews” she immediately felt at home with the people, their sense of freedom and joie de vivre and the lifestyle of the place Greeks even today call “the island of exile”.
In recent history Ikaria has become wold famous since it was named as one of the Blue Zones,® a term coined by the Belgian demographer Dr. Michel Poulain, who together with Dr. Gianni Pes of the University of Sassari in Italy and Dan Buettner, author of the book The Blue Zones, have been studying the planet’s pockets of longevity since 2003, under the aegis of the National Geographic Foundation and, in the case of Ikaria, the AARP as well as a series of other corporate funders. Poulain, blue pen in hand, literally drew circles (in blue) on the map one day around places such as Ikaria, Okinawa, Sardinia, Costa Rica, and a community of Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California, where people seem to live an inordinately long time. His blue- circled zones gave birth to the term that has become synonymous with longevity, but the trademark is owned by Buettner.
Kochilas bases some of her book’s extensive research on Blue Zones as well as the Ikaria Study, (compiled by an international team of researchers), and of course, above all, on her first hand experience and investigations. In her introduction, she writes, interestingly: “What I discovered was that it wasn’t so much what people ate a generation or two ago on Ikaria, but it was more the fact that they simply did not eat very much at all. Food was not nearly as plentiful then as it is today, so if anything, the dearth, rather than the type, of food defined their diet. Equally important, of course, was and still is the quality of food.”
She reveals that despite the fact that fast food and processed food has entered the daily reality of local life, Ikarian people still base a great deal of their diet on “wild greens and tomatoes and fruits picked in season, fish just minutes out of the sea, the pigs raised in the family barn, the goats that are grazed or fed on clover and bramble, and the chickens that also eat scraps left over from dinner.” She adds that, in true Greek tradition, “olive oil flows in copious amounts and mostly everyone produces their own.”
I have been to Ikaria numerous times, as I have beloved friends living there. Some come and go between Ikaria and Athens, where they reside during the winter months in order to make a living, but escape during the summer for as long as possible to return to the place they call home, while a few others live there all year round, after only a few years indoctrinated into the mentality and culture of Ikaria and thus able to tolerate the coldest, loneliest and most brutal winters on an island that is seven hours trip by boat from Attika and a one hour flight (the airport being at the other side of the island for them, so add another two hours to their ‘escape’ journey).
One of my friends from Christos, Raches, where Kochilas is also from, has a rosy-cheeked 98 year-old grandmother who still lives on Ikaria. Kyria Athanasia is the ultimate example of what Kochylas writes about in her book – locals who, through their way of living have maintained themselves admirable well. She tends her chickens, a luscious garden of basil, gardenias, hortensias in the colour of the twilight sky, bouganvellia, fruit trees, and even vegetables including courgettes, onions, potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes, together with keeping her household in tip top shape through the year.
As I got to know her, Kyria Athanasia disclosed to me that her diet has always been home-grown, foraged, seasonal, fresh and measured, something that Kochilas notes in her book based on her own research. Meat has always been a secondary component in her diet: she slaughters one or two of her chickens annually, separating them into parts that are frozen and included in soups or stews once every few weeks.
Wine, olive oil, grains and pulses, all feature regularly in her diet, but, complying with the ancient Greek wisdom that says “excellence comes from good measure”, never in excess. She is socially active to this day, loving the outdoors, and one day after she accepted a lift with us to a nearby beach, she quickly and quietly slipped away to walk to the very end of the long beach, where we later found her relaxing against a rock in her black one piece bathing suit, and chatting gaily with her friends, feet submerged into the sea, sparkling smilingly in the sun.
It turns out that Kyria Athanasia, together with another two locals, were also the creators of the popular, dizzying Raches festival that takes place every June 24th, a by now massive community event circled around the village’s local church. Annually, thousands gather to eat, drink, drink some more, fall into more feasting, and dance for hours on end. The festivities that are almost paganistic in their nature – including rituals such as jumping over fires (often drunk on the stark red Ikarian wine) whilst holding hands with your loved ones, or alone, as if making a wish and affirming a wild-spirited existence. At the festival you can try boiled goat, Greek salad, fries and the legendary red wine, with revellers of every age, traditional music that verges on the psychedelic and communal dancing from 9pm until way into the next morning. Locals often eat rich foods such as goat intestines soup after waking hung over the following afternoon, swearing by its recovery properties.
As with other popular local produce, Kochilas’ Ikaria book includes an entire section dedicated to the very important local wine, informing us that: “Even now, the wine in Ikaria is very strong, between 16% and 18% alcohol. In most wine- making regions, it is impossible to produce wines so strong in alcohol because normally the wine yeasts die when the alcohol level rises above 16%. But modern oenologists on Ikaria isolated a natural, indigenous yeast that can continue the fermentation process even when the alcohol content of the must rises above 16% alcohol. To this day, Ikarians still drink their strong wine the way the ancients did, by watering it down.”
In her book, Kochilas examines the unique local mentality, which together withy modest diet, celebrating life and spending a lot of time outdoors, is probably another key to the longevity and sturdy health of the Ikarian people. She writes: “To this day, a relative disinterest in material wealth, a penchant for last-minute planning, if any at all, and a deep-rooted recognition of the fleeting quality of life still pervade and define the Ikarian mind-set. Most of the values that define and constrict the West are anathema in Ikaria; of course, no one could ever quantify this, but these, together with what was once a lean, almost exclusively plant-based diet, are the values that account for the islanders’ legendary longevity.”
One of those things that “define and constrict the West but are anathema in Ikaria” is a complete lack of interest when it comes to conventional time-keeping. it’s no surprise that the west’s obsession with time – having it, filling it in as many ways possible, making it ‘worth one’s while’, and so on – is a goal that is completely overlooked, if not actively opposed, on Ikaria. Kochylas chidingly relates a personal story about her wedding: “My husband and I got married on the island in 1984 and I was 2 hours late for my own wedding. I finally arrived only to learn that the priest had not gotten there yet either! It honestly wasn’t a big deal. People were enjoying themselves, the groom was testing the wine, the goats were on a spit, and after the ceremony took place the actual festivities went on for almost 2 days. Imagine that happening in New York City! Signs here and there in shops around the island read “Clocks, Anxiety and Stress Have No Place on Ikaria.” A running joke, when you ask someone what time it is, is to answer argamisi, (or “late-thirty.”)”.
Kochilas’ Ikarian food bible includes sections on mezedes – or appetisers, salads raw and cooked, comforting soups, pies and breads, vegetable dishes, beans and legumes, sea food and fish, meat (which as Kochylas rightly comments, Greeks eat far too much of (“Today, the amount of meat that Greeks consume—and Ikarians are no different—never ceases to amaze me. The latest statistics available, from the journal The Food Industry in Greece, state that per capita meat consumption in Greece is at an unbelievable (at least to this vegetable lover) 183 pounds (83 kg) annually, or about 1⁄2 pound (225 g) per day. More than a third of that is pork, with poultry running second at about 21%, beef at 20%, and the traditional goat and lamb lumped together at 15% of total consumption.”) and of course sweets.
Ikaria includes a special note on Ikarian thyme honey, said to be a key part of the local’s recipe for longevity. Quoting her friend Yorgos Stenos, she writes: “Pharmaco [medicine]. Every morning, I eat a tablespoon of this. When we were kids this was our breakfast—a cup of fliskouni [pennyroyal tea], a clove of garlic, and a spoonful of honey all mixed together. It’s nature’s antibiotic. And more”.
While I was on the island last time, my partner and his friend (one of our Ikarian buddies) jumped on a speedboat and headed to a nearby islet where a local, called Yiannis, gathers his honey. Thyme honey can be found all around Greece, but this honey comes from a place where practically nothing but thyme bushes grow – and that’s extremely rare. The taste of his honey was unbelievable, sharp yet subtle at the same time, and I could feel its medicinal qualities right as it hit my tongue. Kochlyas offers a very informative section on the types of honey cultivated on the island, (pine honey is also considered one of Ikaria’s ‘secrets’ for wellbeing) on their many benefits and uses, as well as great recipes to boot.
Kochilas’ IKARIA, her 18th cookbook, is undoubtedly written with the kind of familiar love one reserves for immediate family, as well as inherent knowledge and a lifetime’s research via her cultural compass. The photos depicting local scenes, landscapes and characters, and highly informative historical, anthropological, cultural texts, authentic as well as modernised / US-varied recipes and heart-warming personal accounts by Kochilas truly make it a vehicle that transports the reader to her beloved native home in Greece, a place that reveals a great deal about her.
Every summer, the author organises workshops on food and cooking for a few weeks on Ikaria, at a price that not everyone can handle but definitely worth your while if you can.
All original photos by Alexia Amvrazi (except IKARIA book cover and Diane Kochylas profile photo).
A recipe from Ikaria, Lessons on Food, Life, and Longevity from the
Greek Island Where People Forget to Die:
LENTIL SALAD WITH FENNEL, ONIONS, AND LOTS OF HERBS
Fakes Salata me Maratho, Myrodika kai Kremmydia
Lentils are one of the oldest pulses in the Eastern Mediterranean and one of the most important on Ikaria. Mostly people cook them up in simple soups. This salad is a bit of a hybrid, something we eat in our home in the spring and early summer, when there is still plenty of feathery wild fennel around. You can substitute dill instead, and the salad may be served warm or at room temperature.
2 cups small lentils, rinsed
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and chopped or thinly sliced
1 large red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1⁄2 cup chopped fennel fronds or snipped fresh dill
1⁄2 cup chopped fresh Chinese celery or regular celery leaves
1⁄3 cup chopped fresh mint leaves
2 teaspoons dried Greek oregano
10 olives: kalamata or wrinkled (salt-cured) black olives such as Greek throumbes or Moroccan
1⁄2 cup Greek extra virgin olive oil 1⁄4 cup red wine vinegar
MAKES 4 TO 6 SERVINGS
Place the lentils in a pot with enough cold water to cover by 3 inches (7.5 cm). Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce to low and simmer, uncovered, until the lentils are tender but al dente, 25 to 35 minutes. Drain and rinse.
Transfer the lentils to a serving bowl and add the fennel, onion, fennel fronds (or dill), celery, mint, oregano, and olives.
In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, and salt to taste. Pour into the salad, toss well, and serve.