Greece's Island of Longevity
“Ya gotta give the guy credit,” I said around midnight, as Rich’s new friend led yet another 20-something woman onto the dance floor. “He’s got a lot of energy for eighty-four.”
One of the locals laughed. “Eighty-four? He’s ninety-three.”
I regarded the dancer with even greater respect. Not only was he the life of the panygyri, one of the traditional all-night parties with which Ikaria celebrates saints’ name days, but he was a living example of the locals’ legendary longevity. Designated as one of the handful of Blue Zones in the world, the island is full of people living remarkably long, healthy lives. I’d read articles on the subject aloud to Rich, adding, “We have to go there. Maybe it will rub off on us.”
We arrived on the Sunday afternoon ferry and asked Dimitri, our hotel’s ever-helpful desk clerk, where to go for a late lunch. “Popi’s,” he said promptly. “The best food on the island, possibly all of Greece. Ten minutes’ walk up the coast road.” Twenty minutes later, as we staggered up yet another rise, we began to wonder if somehow we’d missed the place. Pulling out his phone, Rich discovered that Google had actually heard of Popi’s and informed us that it was just around the next bend, adding helpfully, “Closed. Opens again 1:00 AM.”
“That can’t be right,” he said.
We’d been told Ikarians refused to live by the clock, lightheartedly referring to any time of day as “late-thirty.” One young man I’d read about set off to buy coffee for his mother and didn’t return for three months. He’d run into friends en route to a panygyri, partied all night, gone to Athens, and gotten a temporary job. Presumably at some point he called home to suggest someone else should fetch Mom’s coffee. Obviously things were a bit looser around here. Still, opening at 1:00 AM?
We soldiered on.
Popi’s was just around the next bend, open, and serving some of the best food we’ve ever eaten.
As we settled in the shade of the overhead vines, looking out over the tranquil Aegean Sea, we chatted with Zisis, whose mother had operated the place as a bar until he was born in 1993, at which point she converted it into a restaurant. I asked if he’d lived here all his life.
“I went to work in Crete for a time,” Zisis told us. “Too much stress. It’s better here.”
A relaxed lifestyle is one of the reasons ten times more Ikarians than Americans reach their eighties and nineties — and why their old age is rarely plagued with cancer, depression, or dementia. Another major factor is a diet based on the island’s wild greens, nutrient-rich herbs, seasonal vegetables, smaller amounts of food in general, and protein that’s mostly homemade cheese, fish, and goat. Goat is a surprisingly healthy option, far leaner than lamb or beef, with 40% less saturated fat than skinless chicken. And wild goat, it turns out, was the specialty of the house at Popi’s.
Now I know what some of you are thinking: How could I consider eating one of those cute little goats that had bleated a greeting as we passed, peering curiously at us from the hillside next to the restaurant? Well, right now, Ikaria is hideously overrun with goats, thanks to EU subsidies rewarding larger herds. On an island with just 8423 residents, there are currently 35,000 goats, most roaming free and wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. Islanders are desperate to cull the herds to keep their island’s vegetation healthy. I decided to do my bit to help.
“Want to try some wild goat?” I asked Rich. “Will you show me how you make it?” I asked Zisis. To my delight, they both said yes.
Zisis explained the meat was super fresh, having been butchered that very morning. They raise their own goats and get more from relatives and friends. “Some goats are kept in pens, but many are free. And then the people must go hunting.”
Asked to pin down quantities for the recipe, Zisis estimated he starts with about 2.25 kilos of meat. Because it’s so lean, formal cuts such as loin and shoulder aren’t practical; instead you make “village cuts,” dividing the meat any way you can, so long as it winds up a size that’s roughly suitable for cooking. You add lots of salt, pepper, and about three quarters of a cup of olive oil. You cook the meat in a ceramic pot at 200 degrees Celsius (400 degrees Fahrenheit) for an hour and a half to two hours. The cooking brings out the meat’s natural juices, but check it a few times and if it seems dry, add a little vegetable broth.
When the meat is tender and the smaller bones practically liquified, you take it out of the oven and sprinkle it with fresh herbs. Often this includes oregano, which is full of vitamins, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, digestive aids, and much more. A study showed the variety grown on the island is three times more nutrient-rich and aromatic than the kinds in other parts of Greece. (I hate to even think how our American corporate version might compare.)
But the most important thing we learned is that wild goat cooked in its own juices and garnished with wild herbs tastes simply marvelous — succulent, rich, and comforting.
Learning how to cook goat was just one small part of our effort to live as “Ikarianly” as possible while we’re here. We’ve eaten local foods, sampled the local wines, and danced at the panygyri. Letting go of our sense of time, we’ve been easing around town at our best approximation of the locals’ relaxed pace, stopping often to linger in cafés and on our favorite wharf-side bench.
Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t an island of slackers. People get plenty done. They just do it their own way. Errands, for instance, often involve leaving their car in the middle of the street, their motorcycle at the curb with the keys in it, or their bicycle propped unsecured against a lamppost. Ikarians don’t sweat the small stuff … or the large stuff either. My goal in life is to find more ways to be like them. And of course, to eat more wild goat.
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5/22/2019 07:05:33 pm
But for eating goat, the place sounds heavenly.
5/23/2019 07:03:07 am
It is a wonderful place, Andrea, and eating the local foods is all part of the adventure. The goat was actually totally delicious, and no weirder than eating lamb or any other meat, when you really think about it. Our next cooking video, which we shoot tomorrow in Athens: rooster. I'll let you know how that goes.
5/22/2019 08:17:12 pm
We just got back from 2 short weeks in Greece. I had goat for the first time on Crete and it was delicious. Very glad to hear that it is so healthy!
5/23/2019 07:07:04 am
How lucky you two are to spend time in Crete; we loved it. And yes, how delightful that goat turns out to be so healthy, especially these lean wild goats raised on herbs and fresh greens on the Greek mountainside. Did you love the Greek food? We've been gorging on it.
5/24/2019 04:46:54 am
O that sweet little goat!! And such a sweet baaah. Zisis is not bad either...O to be 50 years younger!
5/24/2019 08:41:26 am
There are a lot of adorable youngsters — human and animal — on that island, Faye. And the great thing about Ikaria is that compared to a lot of the residents, I feel like a kid myself!
5/24/2019 10:04:48 am
Hi everybodyl. Rich, how unfair is life. You enjoying your trips and I am here working.
5/25/2019 08:51:06 am
Good to hear it's not too hot in Seville. We have just arrived in Athens, where it is warm but not too hot, much like Seville. We have eaten some amazing food, but Rich keeps saying, "This is good, but not as good as the jamon Julio brings us from Salamanca!"
5/25/2019 01:16:18 am
Do you think you will ever cook goat? It looks great. I like sauces.
5/25/2019 09:00:27 am
If I ever do cook goat, Kitty, I'll make sure it's one raised in those lovely pasture lands along the California coast, with the flavor of wild greens and sea air. As for longevity, I could not find any statistics on specific areas of Spain, but I can tell you what's the opposite of a Blue Zone: the USA. We're at a dismal 43rd place, and predictions are we'll drop to 64th by 2040. Yikes! That means dozens of countries already offer better chances of long life, and the gap is expected to grow. Food for thought!
5/30/2019 05:54:32 pm
Goat is one of the great secrets of the kitchen - such flavour and vastly superior to lamb. I am jealous
5/31/2019 12:32:04 pm
So true, Carolyn. I'm amazed goat hasn't assumed a seriously trendy status among California foodies. Maybe one day!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
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