Buettner knows very well that when a place is discovered with more than its fair share of centenarians and so starts to draw tourists, truth and fiction can quickly become blurred.
‘I wanted this study to cut through the stories and establish the facts about Ikaria’s longevity,’ he says. What they discovered was that people on Ikaria were reaching the age of 90 with two and a half times the frequency of Americans. Ikarian men, in particular, are four times as likely to reach 90, often in better health.
Ikarians also suffered less depression and a quarter of the rate of dementia. ‘On Ikaria, they stay sharp to the end,’ wrote Buettner in an article for the New York Times.
At almost 100 square miles, the mountainous island is 30 miles off the coast of Turkey.
Ikarians have tamed the landscape by growing vegetables, grains and grapes in their gardens and on terraces cut into the hillsides. This is important, as locals and experts agree that the most important keys to Ikarian longevity and good health are diet, exercise and wine.
‘The wine is very important,’ insists everyone on the island. Made from a mixture of red and white grapes, it does not contains any additives or sulphites, but has a very high alcohol content of 16 per cent and sometimes even 18 per cent — more potent than sherry! However, it’s usually drunk in small but convivial measures, and never without food.
Centre of good health: Ikaria's reputation dates back centuries, to when other Greeks would travel here to soak in the hot springs on the eastern flank of the island
In more recent times, the island has caught the attention of longevity expert, Dan Buettner. He has listed it among the places in the world that have come closest to cracking the secret of eternal life
The Ikarian diet is local, seasonal and natural. A Carrefour supermarket opened on the island three years ago, but very little processed food is consumed by the older set. They don’t eat much meat, with goat being preferred to lamb when they do.
A typical breakfast would be tea made with wild herbs and bread with local honey, plus olives and cheese. The main meal of the day is lunch: typically vegetables with pulses or beans, plus wine and bread, followed by a siesta. The light evening meal is similar to breakfast.
Of prime importance in the local diet is horta, a generic name for a selection of wild plants picked from the hillsides and made into salads in summer, or boiled and dressed with olive oil and lemon in winter.
The water the leaves are cooked in is drunk with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Bitter but not unpleasant, you can feel it sluicing through your body like a cleansing tide.
One night on Ikaria I had two piping hot cups of horta soup — the next day, I felt wonderful.
That was at the house of Katerina Karoutsou, an 85-year-old widow whose hair is jet black and who still makes spaghetti by hand, rolling pasta dough on a paddle-shaped board. ‘We’ve never had the dried stuff,’ she said.
The island of Ikaria is almost 100 square miles and 30 miles off the coast of Turkey
In her simple house with a log fire roaring in a medieval-looking hearth, she showed me the bucket of freshly picked horta — a mixture of dandelion, wild sorrel, chicory and fennel leaves, plus other plants I couldn’t identify.
Dinner was horta, pasta, wild mushrooms from the hills and a bowl of sour, freshly harvested olives — in this form, they are particularly rich in anti-cancerous properties.
I noticed that the women around the table all had beautiful complexions, with one 58-year-old revealing she had never put anything on her flawless, peachy skin except soap, water and the occasional splash of fresh lemon juice.
Her skincare routine extended only to a little olive oil rubbed on her lips if they got dry. She was one of Katerina’s nine children, all of them born in the room next door with no drugs or anaesthetic, just the ministrations of a local midwife.