Secrets of Longevity
Craggy and hard to reach, the Northeastern Aegean islands are Greece’s least-touristed. On most, the pristine natural setting harmoniously coexists with traditional settlements. On the smaller islands like Samothraki, foreign tourists are scarce. Yet these islands are worth the journey to discover gastronomic treasures like the famed Chios mastiha, Ikaria’s secrets of longevity, and the sweet Samos wines.
The northeastern Aegean islands lie near the Turkish coast. Samos is separated from Asia Minor’s shores by the Mykali strait which is just 1,300 meters wide, and the eastern coast of Chios faces the Erythraia peninsula. Nonetheless, the traces of Ottoman rule are fainter here than in other parts of Greece.
Its strategic location on the commercial crossroads between Europe and Asia made this part of the Aegean a site of confrontation that throughout history has often erupted in clashes, wars, and massacres. This was the route taken by the Persians who arrived in the Aegean from Asia Minor to conquer the Greek cities; in later history, the islands were claimed by the Byzantine Empire, the Crusaders, and Genoa before passing into Ottoman hands. The islands became part of the Greek state in 1912.
Mastiha production has shaped the island’s life and culture to a considerable degree. Mastiha-producing trees grow around the Mastihohoria (Mastic villages) in southern Chios, an area of 24 settlements with a population of roughly 5,000 whose livelihood is directly linked to the resin. As in Olympi, Mesta, Pyrgi, and Chios Town itself, the architecture of these villages features castles, towers, and walls built by the Genoese in the Middle Ages to withstand pirate and other attacks.
The ideal time to visit the Mastihohoria is during the mastic harvest, which runs from July to October
The tears of Chios
Other Greek islands owe their reputations to sparkling beaches, ancient heroes’ feats, or ruins of legendary cities but Chios’s treasure is something far more humble: mastiha, the aromatic resin of the lentisk tree that only produces commercially viable quantities of crystalized resin in a specific area of Chios(famous Northeastern Aegean island). The resin is valuable. It is used to make chewing gum, flavor food and drinks, relieve stomach ulcers and tooth aches, and as an additive to cosmetics and perfumes. This resin is even used as an adhesive in airplane tires.
The resin is extracted just before dawn: harvesters gently score the bark for weeks then wait for the sap to trickle down, in long tears. Mastic trees grow throughout Greece and the Mediterranean, but the only one that “weeps” is the Pistacia lentiscus var. Chia that grows here.
In cooking, mastiha is traditionally used to flavor olive oil, bread, tsoureki (slightly sweet holiday bread), mastiha liqueur (clear, with a taste all its own), ouzo, marmalades, dairy products, even coffee. Contemporary Greek chefs use it in meat or fish marinades, seasoning for tomato, wine, or lemon sauces, and in original desserts made with chocolate, fruit, or ice cream.
Chios is also known as Myrovolos, from the Greek for aromatic, because of the citrus scent perfuming the air from its groves of lemon, orange, tangerine, grapefruit, and quince trees. Both the climate and groundwater reserves favor the cultivation of citrus, which was introduced in 1348 by the Genoese who brought with them orange trees from Italy and Africa as well as tangerine trees from India. Their fruit is used to make refreshing juices, drinks, marmalades, and spoon sweets.
Chios harbors other epicurean pleasures: sweet green beans from Vavili, fine sun-dried tomatoes from Pyrgi, and an abundance of fish and seafood like sardines, red mullet, bream, calamari, octopus, and shrimp—which are even tastier when savored at a seaside taverna.
Ikaria, the isle of centenarians
The island of Ikaria (Northeastern Aegean) , south of Chios, recalls the tragic flight of Icarus who plunged to his death in the sea after the sun’s heat melted the wax holding his wings together. But Ikaria is also known for another reason as it appears to harbor the secret of longevity. A recent study by the University of Athens found that the island’s 8,000-odd inhabitants live at least ten years longer than the European average and enjoy better physical health. Meanwhile, the American writer and journalist Dan Buettner, in cooper-ation with the National Geographic, has included Ikaria in the planet’s so-called Blue Zones, that is, regions with the most people over the age of ninety. (The other regions are Sardinia, Okinawa, Loma Linda, California, and Costa Rica’s Nicoya peninsula.) After living on the island for fifteen months duringwhich he observed locals, Buettner discovered the secret of long life: a pristine natural environment, physical activity, and a daily nap coupled with a diet rich in fish and vegetables but very little red meat. The Ikarians’ diet also includes goat’s milk and herb tisanes—sage, thyme, chamomile, mountain tea (ironwort)—sweetened
with a little honey.
Sweet Samos wines
According to some experts, the secret to remaining young is neither a diet rich in vegetables nor a simple lifestyle, but drinking a glass of wine every day. The best way to verify this is to travel to Samos, which is famous for producing some of Greece’s finest sweet wines. Samos is an island of fertile valleys and enchanting beaches. It’s been an idyllic holiday spot since antiquity as it is believed to have been the retreat favored by Mark An-tony and Cleopatra. Its wonderful vineyards extend over the island’s northern area up Mount Ampelos or Karvounis, an old 1,153-meter volcano that forms an ample amphitheater planted with vines. The Union of Vinicultural Cooperatives of Samos was founded in 1934 and includes 25 local cooperatives with the exclusive right to produce and sell the wines made with “white Muscat” grapes. The Samos Wine Museum (one of the greatest Northeastern Aegean wine museums) was founded in 2005 at the village of Malagari, in eastern Samos. Exhibits trace the process and development of the island’s winemaking tradition through old tools, lab equipment, barrels, photographs and awards. Visitors can also sample some of the island’s best-known wines like Anthemis, Grand Cru, and Nectar—a very sweet, amber-colored wine with a bouquet of oranges, figs, and nuts.
Pythagoreio is also worth visiting. The picturesque village boasts narrow lanes, white-washed houses, and archaeological ruins that include part of a defensive wall and the Tunnel of Eupalinos, the oldest example of ancient Greek engineering. The 1,036-meter tunnel dates from the sixth century B.C. and was used as an aqueduct, especially during sieges. The village takes its name from the famed mathematician known for his theorem. But Pythagoras is only one of the island’s illustrious figures. Others were the fabulist Aesop, the astronomer Aristarchus—who first argued that the earth rotates around the sun—and the philosopher Epicurus, the patron of gastronomy. In the early fourth century B.C., Epicurus bought an estate in Athens where he founded The Garden, his philosophical school which combined discussions with vegetable cultivation. His name has been linked to bliss, but also to abuse and exaggeration. Epicurus, however, recommended we enjoy the simple, daily pleasures: “To eat and drink without a friend is to devour like the lion and the wolf.”