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The Cilento Secret
Does ancient wisdom about eating well apply to modern life?
On a walk through the medieval lanes of Trentinara I paused to offer a polite hello to an elderly couple who were sweeping up in front of their home. A door was open to a little workshop. They gestured for me to go look inside. Above my head were handwoven baskets and bright bunches of tomatoes.
I was at the beginning of a six week stay in Trentinara and eager to chat with them. Senior citizens or anziani in this part of Italy are like minor celebrities because scientists from all over the world come here to study the secret to longevity. They told me how they had spent their entire lives in this tiny network of stone streets. I knew I was missing many words because they spoke in dialect, but I understood them well enough to venture a question.
“What’s the best place to eat in Trentinara?” I asked.
“Our house!” the man said, then looked at his wife and they laughed at the absurdity of my question.
Trentinara is a humble mountain village with around 1,500 residents who enjoy a privileged view of Capri and a terrific sweep of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It belongs to a part of Italy called Cilento (chih-LEN-toe) which encompasses a range of mountains and coastline. The seaside cliffs are not quite as dramatic as on the neighboring Amalfi Coast, but the charming seaside villages that attracted Hollywood and the cognoscenti to Amalfi in the 1950s are still intact in Cilento. In one town, men still gather weekly to mend their fishing nets and talk.
Cilento is famous for the temples at Paestum, mozzarella di bufala, and the Mediterranean Diet. Among the first scientists to study food in Cilento was an American physiologist named Ancel Keys. In 1952 he attended a conference at Oxford where he heard an Italian scientist say that heart attacks were rare among the workers of Naples. Along with his wife Margaret, they decided to go to South Italy to investigate, and ended up staying for 40 years.
Ancel and Margaret closely studied the local foodways and lifestyle. They relished in the simple foods prepared by their housekeeper Delia Morinelli who cooked only what grew in the garden and used anchovies to flavor most of her dishes. Delia’s cooking wisdom became part of the 1959 book, “Eat and Stay Well” and then in 1975, “How To Eat Well and Stay Well The Mediterranean Way.”
The Mediterranean Diet may be the one diet which has withstood fads and that doctors continue to recommend. (Ancel Keys lived to be 101 years old, and Margaret to 97.) Heavy on beans, fish, and leafy greens, it holds up as a hedge against heart disease, though it was poorly leveraged for the low-fat fad diets of the 1980s. It has emerged once again as the best diet for healing from long Covid.
Following the work of Keys, scientists have continued to study the abundance of centenarians in Cilento. While there was a widely circulated theory about the local rosemary being the Cilento secret to long life, most researchers agree it’s not only the diet, but the lifestyle, which after just a few days spent enjoying the sunshine and serene life there, seems irrefutable.
(In 2020 food writer Luciano Pignataro published “The Cilento Method: The Five Secrets of Centenarians” which unpacks the lifestyle. Read about it here.)
A version of Delia’s seasonal cooking that resisted anything complicated or contrived is found across the world in communities where traditional life persists. I think of my own grandmother from Cilento, who would prepare an Easter feast for the family of Neapolitan style lasagna stuffed with rich ricotta and tiny meatballs, followed by roasted leg of lamb —then sit down with us and eat a salad. She always said fresh tomatoes tasted better to her than a steak. I was unconvinced, but she lived to be 90.
It’s important to not to over-romanticize a traditional lifestyle as nature can be cruel and living by the seasons requires as much faith as it does very hard work. Much of the traditional life and agriculture in Cilento is possible because South Italy is not an economic powerhouse. That also means employment opportunities are limited and young people are forced to become entrepreneurs or leave. The Cilento National Park restricts development and protects the pristine coast from the ravages of mass tourism. The argument can also be made that it concentrates wealth for the cruise lines and major hotel groups on the Amalfi Coast.
Is it even possible to follow ancient wisdom for how to eat and live well in a modern world? This was the question I turned over as I looked up at the baskets and tomatoes.
It would be easy to expound on the stresses of digital life and the perils of Big Agriculture and Big Pharma on the gut biome, another key element of longevity. Yet I must acknowledge that we live in the single greatest time in human history for those who love to eat. Eating good food from all over the world is a powerful opportunity for appreciating, connecting, and understand other cultures, not to mention one of the greatest pleasures of my life. But to borrow a phrase that describes another problem of the globalized world —the inconvenient truth is that responsible eating is done with what grows from the earth on which you live. It certainly helps if that place is sunny, fertile Cilento.
The answer was offered by the tomatoes which are dried this way to concentrate their flavor and produce a more delicious sauce. The Cilento secret for how to eat and live well is do the best with what you have.
This May 15-22 I’m once again hosting a tour called The Cilento Secret. There are still a few spots left if you’d like to join us!
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