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The island of Ikaria, also called Icaria and Nikaria, is known for being the “Blue Zone” of Greece, where its inhabitants often reach 100 years of age and more. Check out our post on our arrival to Faros, where we spent a week, exploring the ancient sites and eating local food.
In this blog post, we discuss the Ikarian diet in relation to the foods we tried in the town of Faros, the first town we stayed at on the island, as well as what we learned about longevity from our stay on the entire island. We feel that the diet is misinterpreted by many researchers based on the almost two months we spent living on the island.
Faros is a very small, but picturesque coastal town. There is even a small supermarket that carries various goods. The shop has very friendly local workers who can speak some English.
Overall, the researchers have gotten the Ikarian diet partly correct, but the proportions of everything are different. It is true that Ikarians (Ikariots) eat and have eaten many vegetables and wild herbs for all of their history. Not necessarily out of desire, though, but out of necessity.
The Ikarian people have always been poorer compared to the other islands, but their land is much richer comparatively. Take the Samos and Fournoi islands, for example, which are Ikaria’s neighboring islands. They are almost desert like if you compare them to Ikaria!
We asked Ikariots why Samos doesn’t have Ikaria’s longevity, and in their view, it is because Ikarians have a stronger sense of community, which we will discuss in later posts. But, we also feel that it is because the land of Ikaria is much more fertile than that of Samos.
We bought fresh vegetables at the supermarket in Faros, but they may not be from the island as it was still spring there. Ikarians do grow vegetables year-round that change seasonally. We saw many gardens with vegetables almost ready in early May in Faros. And, whenever a vegetable is not in season, they just replace it in their recipes with the ones they have ready to harvest at any time. For example, one amazing host in Ikaria gave us her moussaka to eat, which had zucchini and potatoes instead of eggplant, which wasn’t ready yet.
Foraging Wild Plants
Ikarians survived off the mountainous land, eating whatever they could find in the past, which was often wild vegetables. They have knowledge of many plants, including ferns, taro root (kolokassi), herbs, berries and more. We will have more posts about the foods we bought and foraged on the island, so subscribe to our newsletter to stay tuned.
A difference we have noticed, though, that diverge from what the researchers say is the amount of olive oil Ikarians use. Yes, they use a lot of olive oil for their meals now, 1/2 cup or more in recipes! But, in the past, there wasn’t that much, and some regions had little to none.
You must keep in mind that Ikarians were known for their longevity for many centuries. Thus there is something that they have consistently done to live long. However, Ikarians do say that the olive oil is a reason they live long. We realized that the olive oil in Ikaria is unique and different from the other islands: it is very mild in taste. The light colored olive oil is not a favorite for some non-Ikarian Greeks we encountered, but it must be very healthy.
The light taste comes from the variety of olives, as well as the soil. For instance, here is a local olive oil we bought in the supermarket in Faros, and it is made of two varieties of olives: hondroelia and koroneiki.
You may have noticed in our video that we didn’t buy any meat in Faros. Further, you may think, along with the researchers, that Ikarians do not eat a lot of meat. But, that is not the case. It is true that there wasn’t meat for sale in the supermarket of Faros, or there was so little that we didn’t see it.
There was some seafood, but we were told by an Ikarian family that it was dangerous and difficult to fish in the past due to pirates and bad sea conditions. So, the seafood is more of a recently eaten food and only a summer food in the past.
However, meat was always eaten. We were told that in the past meat may not have been eaten every day. But, it was still consumed often and in big portions, especially during the summer holidays. We really enjoyed Ikarian goat meat and its flavor, though we met Ikarians that didn’t like it, but still ate other kinds of meat.
Ask yourself how would they survive in the past without meat, let alone live a long life without much food? And why isn’t there meat sold in the supermarket? Well, this is because there are no goat farmers that sell to the stores. Families raise their own meat and make their own dairy products. This explains why it can be expensive to buy these products at the store.
When we visited restaurants, though, we found local meat there, which was often raised by the restaurant owners. We also found meat at some larger stores in Agios Kirykos and Christos Raches, but we are unsure if it is from the island. We will show you the restaurants and other foods hauls in future posts and YouTube videos, so subscribe to our YouTube channel to stay tuned.
Since we mentioned the dairy products, let’s discuss how much Ikariots eat them and why they are healthy there. I say “healthy there” because these products are healthy only on the island, and you cannot attain the longevity if you do not live there. This goes for other things as well, that we will mention in the future.
Why do I say this? Referring to the dairy products, it is because the goat and sheep are pastured on the fertile, pristine land of Ikaria, covered in a variety of wild herbs and plants. The meat and dairy have more omega 3 fats and less of the inflammatory omega 6 fats. Another factor is the milk protein digestibility, since goat and sheep milk is easier to digest than cow milk. Ikarians produce goat and sheep dairy for their own consumption. Cows are difficult to raise on mountainous islands, such as Ikaria.
There is more we will discuss in the future, but to answer the question of how much dairy they eat, it is a considerable amount. We saw dairy products in Ikaria mostly in the form of different kinds of cheeses, including feta, kathoura and a spreadable aged cheese mixed with oregano.
I believe that they must have relied on a considerable amount of dairy products to survive in the past. When they lived inland in stone houses to evade pirates, dairy must have been easier to harvest every day as a main source of calories compared to anything else.
Ikarians like to eat honey, especially with wild herbal tea in the morning. If you hike around the island, you would see colorful bee boxes everywhere with honey being made from all kinds of different herbs from various seasons. In the past, honey would be used instead of sugar to make the famous spoon sweets on the island.
We bought this thyme honey with the honeycomb from the supermarket in Faros, and thyme honey is said to be the gem of Ikarian honeys.
However, we found another honey in Ikaria that blew our minds: heather honey. Heather honey is a honey made from heather flowers up high in the mountains. But, it is a very unique honey that even diabetics can eat. This is so because it is much less sweet and doesn’t even taste like honey at all!
Faros is a town covered in grapevine. Ikaria is famous for its wine that was even mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. It is believed that the Greek God of Wine, Dionysus, was born in Ikaria, and we will show you the trek to his cave in Faros in an upcoming video and blog post.
Our host in Faros graciously gave us some great organic Ikarian wine that was 13 Euros at the local store. It was very delicious and unique with this lighter, almost brownish color.
Ikarian wine is famous for it’s strong alcohol content, but not all of it is like that. Ikarians enjoy sipping their wine slowly in tiny cups over an overlong dinner. Also, in the past, they would water it down a lot.
We also tried a cheap local white wine from the store in a plastic bottle for 5 Euros and it was also very good.
We noticed that bread is often something that Ikarians buy at the their local market, so we are not sure that they make it often themselves.
When we had dinner with an Ikarian family, they ate a few pieces of bread with their own cheese and an eggplant spread. But, it wasn’t of big portions compared to the main dishes.
There are other foods we bought that are not from Ikaria in the super markets. They are usually more expensive for the locals, so they are typically reserved for the tourists. Locals often buy these kinds of goods, such as sweets, cookies, chocolates for cheaper when they travel to Athens.
We bought canned spreads of fava beans and okra at the store in Faros. We didn’t care for the okra one, but this fava bean spread is a favorite of ours.
We also bought fruits and packaged pasta not from the island.
Perhaps, the most important longevity factor of the Ikarian diet is the spring mountain water. In Faros, we bought bottled water from other islands as we weren’t sure of the quality of the tap water where we stayed. And, there is definitely a problem with not enough water during the summer season as tourists swarm in (a good reason to visit on any month farther away from July and August).
However, we drank spring water in other towns, such as Magganitis and Karavostamo. It was delicious and full of healthy minerals, such as Manganese. This is actually where the name Magganitis supposedly comes from, as the spring water is particularly rich in it.
Ikarian Diet Takeaways
The Ikarian diet is very varied and more complex then researchers would lead you to believe. We don’t know exactly the proportions of the different foods it encompasses, such as how much meat and dairy it typically has and how varied it is across the island.
Ikaria only recently started refrigeration. Before the 1980s, everything was preserved in salt and animal fat. People were more active and ate less. Now, Ikarians spend less time on the island as they live more in Athens. So, who knows if the longevity will persist. But, one thing is for certain. There are many things still left to be discovered on Ikaria, the friendliest island of centenarians.
We will have more videos and blog posts on the longevity of the people of Ikaria, as there is much more to it than diet. Subscribe to our YouTube channel and our blog newsletter for updates in the future.