Could the secret of longevity in an idyllic Italian village be attributable to generous consumption of rosemary in its diet, or is it perhaps the joy of regular sex compounded by hard work that gives the villagers immunity to an early death? The idea that rosemary may be helping to keep Cilento’s pensioners, south of Naples, alive well into their nineties is another claim for a plant, which is already credited with boosting memory, improving mood, soothing inflammation, helping the immune system and even curing bad breath.
It is nearly lunchtime and Maria Vassallo, 95, is having a break after four hour’s bustling around the kitchen of her daughter’s restaurant, giving orders, rolling pasta and baking cakes. ‘I help out because if I stop doing things I get sick,’ she said. Mrs Vassallo is one of the hundreds of ninety-somethings and centarians drawing scientists to the Cilento region to find what makes them tick.
Keeping busy, good genes and low stress are obvious factors in the fishing village of Acciaroli, where 81 of the population of 600 are in their nineties. But it is the rosemary in a vase in Maria’s kitchen that experts suspect may be a magic bullet, helping the area rank with other pockets of remarkable longevity such as Okinawa in Japan. After taking blood samples, the team spotted molecules called ‘metabolites’, of a type not seen before. These may be pushing nutrients down into blood vessels to the brain and organs, ensuring heart conditions, Alzheimer’s, and even cataracts, are almost unheard of locally.
‘These people have beautiful micro-circulation,’ said Alan Maisel, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at San Diego School of Medicine, who took part in the study. The specialists suspect a link between the metabolites and consumption of rosemary and other wild herbs and vegetables such as mint and chicory.
Giuseppe Vassallo, 94, a cousin of Maria, is a poster boy for the theory. ‘We are the generation that had to eat what we found growing wild during the war,’ he said. ‘When you were bent double and hungry, harvesting olives, you could pick chicory and eat it. And when you cooked it, you could save the water which made a healthy drink.’ Standing in his orchards of oranges, lemons and persimmon trees, surrounded by his runner beans, aubergines and peppers, Mr Vassallo discusses the benefits of roasting chickens with rosemary and stuffing baked fish with mint. The former fishermen, who smoked unfiltered cigarettes for 6o years, also has theories concerning another elixir of youth – sex. ‘My wife died seven years ago and one day I said, “I need to find a woman”. Since then girlfriends have helped me feel alive.’
Across the street, Maria Vassallo’s brother, Antonio, 100, sits in the front room of the house where he was born next to his wife, Amina, 94, who is explaining how her generation cured stomach aches by splitting open a cardoon – a wild type of thistle – and drinking the juices inside. ‘When we boiled up chicory, cardoon and wild fennel in pork broth it was like Christmas for us,’ she recalled.
Luigi Buonadonna, a local doctor, said: ‘When pensioners turn up at my surgery I assume they are ill but they are just keen to say hallo and chat.’ Professor Maisel does not believe rosemary alone guarantees longevity. Physical exercise is key: ‘It’s not how old the locals are but how active they are,’ said Acciaroli’s Mayor, Steffano Bisani, 40. He believes tight family ties are also crucial.
Antonio Vassallo may be 100 but he doesn’t care about molecules in his body. What he knows is that if his wife wasn’t there looking after him he’d be long dead. What a wise man he is. We all need a loving wife without whom, no matter what, life becomes intolerable. It isn’t the longevity of life that is crucial. It is its quality and the environment we find ourselves in old age.