Keith Famie, Director/Producer
It was no surprise to me to find out that there would be a ‘Ground Zero’ type location somewhere within the boundaries of the Italian lifestyle where clean living, hard work and family would equate to longevity.
My quest to search out the ‘Fountain of Youth’ on the island of Sardinia would be a waste of time and lack of basis had it not been for the vast knowledge and understanding of the human body by such a doctor as metabolic/nutritionist Dr. Tom Rifai.
Once Dr. Rifai was on board with traveling to the Mediterranean Jewel with me, I had to acquire a well-respected and knowledgeable guide that I could feel absolutely confident with. One who could navigate through the island and small villages, as well as speak fluent English.
I was very lucky to have found a local woman named Valerie Sanna of Direction Sardinia (http://www.directionsardinia.com), along with a wonderful field producer, Gianluca.
Altogether as a team, along with Dr. Tom, we journeyed deep into the Blue Zones of Sardinia. Our home base of operations was a quaint, ranch-like villa called Su Baione.
As part of this production in Sardinia, Guiliano Zuccato, an 80-year young, Venice-born Italian from Farmington Hills, Michigan arranged, with the help of Giulio Ledda, a native of Sardinia and his cousin Tomaso living there, for Dr. Rifai and this production a rare shepherd’s lunch that featured traditional Sardinian singing, festival customs, and a meal directly out of a shepherd’s garden; an amazing opportunity for Dr. Rifai to interview several elder shepherds from an 80-year old to a 101-year old spry gentleman.
Giuliano not only arranged this, he traveled to Sardinia to tour the island, as well.
This arrangement by Giuliano Giulio and Tomaso, was very special and we thank them. Giuliano also arranged with Monsignor Lorenzo Ledda a connection to a shepherd in the Blue Zone. The shepherd’s lunch was one of the most important parts of our production filming.
The journey to Sardinia will prove to be a critical part of our film about aging and men. What we saw and experienced through Dr. Tom’s eyes will help men better understand how they can embrace aging...now it will be up to them.
Please read the very in-depth story by Dr. Tom Rifai on his thoughts about the journey to Sardinia.
Tom Rifai MD
- Travel Day -
Amsterdam Airport: All the trappings of the Western World but slanted slightly more towards health, particularly with the prominent and easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Notably though, skim dairy was non-existent. On the other hand, where we had breakfast, the smaller serving plates and bowls were notable.
Rome Airport: Again, fresh veggies, a bit less prominent fruit but out came the fish, beans and wine! I personally wouldn’t complain, as I’m ok as long as healthy options are available. But it certainly wasn’t as if there wasn’t a lot of junk food around, just not nearly as blatant as my impression of how a typical large US airport is.
Landing in Alghero Airport: Pictures of wine everywhere and a sign celebrating the island’s fame for longevity (man in picture). No McD’s, Starbucks, etc., in site, but then again, a very small airport.
Driving to the hotel, we see tons of grazing sheep on mountainsides and pastures. Also saw cows walking across the road, and wild boars feeding on grass at side of road; gorgeous mountain silhouettes.
Our hotel was in a wooded area filled with partially de-barked cork trees, olive trees in countryside courtyards. Breakfast offered was not BZ (Blue Zone) like. Pastry-heavy with some full, fat cow dairy yogurt, but fresh, whole fruit was offered. Then again, it has been well noted that the entire island is NOT in the BZ, only half of the land area and only 25% of where people live fall into a BZ area. So I wasn’t surprised that a tourist hotel would be serving beans for breakfast! Still, the sweets were cut into FAR smaller portions than a typical “continental breakfast” in US with our huge danishes, other pastries, sugary cereals and donuts. And I supplemented with some medical protein powder nevertheless.
On first daylight travel we caught a road full of sheep being herded by a younger man. Unfortunately and depressingly, we found a McDonald’s bag thrown out like garbage on the side of the road. I felt like the American Indian in that classic American TV commercial advertisement against the throwing garbage out windows.
Approaching the deepest BZ village of Villegrande, we almost literally run into a herd of goats on the dirt road we were traveling.
We see the mountain village of Villegrande from afar embedded into the side of the mountain and note the village’s border sign when officially entering, which said: “World record in male life expectancy.”
Note on the 78-year old goat shepherd: had a very sturdy, short look; thick, tanned skin that was lined with some deep wrinkles, likely from adding in his years of smoking. But, he was able to move constantly and well (with good cheer I might add!).
Despite a clear right-sided limp from what seemed a painful hip, he had pride beaming about his goats, and even more about their cheese, which he made fresh (and not in what might be described as ‘sanitary’ conditions), but also his garden.
He offered me a freshly picked vine ripened tomato, which was excellent, succulent and sweet. We then enjoyed a “brick” of his goat cheese, which definitely had the grass pasture fed flavor I remember from travels to the Middle East, but more than tolerable.
I found myself enjoying the last few bites more than the first. The cheese likely does, due to the grass feeding of the animals it comes from, have a higher fraction of its fat from Omega-3 fats than a similar dairy based, high fraction grain fed, animal in the US.
But, my underlying concern that the goat cheese (kind of like a very soft cream cheese – similar consistency as to the Arabs’ ‘Lebneh’) tasted a bit closer to dairy, was met with the observation a bit later that the shepherd had large bags of corn feed to supplement his goats’ pasture grass during low growth seasons. Oh well, we knew the BZ’s were fading and this was simply one sign: the shift away from natural pasture feeding to grain/corn based feeding.
Apparently, due to low rainfall, the previous Summer/Spring, this particular cheese may have come from goats splitting their food sources between mountain forage/grass and corn, enough to take the ‘gamey’ edge of the cheese and make it more similar to the corn fed diary cheese or American palette are so unfortunately familiar with.
In Villegrande, we met a recently retired 78-year old sheep shepherd who was literally the picture of health. He had a garden behind his two-level home, of course.
But, his particularly smooth skin prompted me to ask what I already knew: “Are you, or have you ever been a smoker?” With a kind wag of his finger, he said “no” and proceeded to tell me without prompting of his clean lifestyle.
The staircase in his home was STEEP and, yet, no problem for him, a lean and cleverly naturally fit man.
The streets in front of his home were also very steep, and we walked them together for the film. I assure you, he was as fit as I am, if not more! In a sign of the non-judgmental attitude towards those of different ages, he brought us to his friend’s home, which was
Clearly losing his mobility and living with his caring daughter, two things still struck me.
First, his reinforcement that he felt his longevity was due to avoiding overeating and a life of movement. The painting on his wall depicting him walking with his shepherds hat, bag & walking stick said it all without words. This man put in many, many 10,000+ step days and with purpose – to feed his family.
His wife just recently passed in January 2011 and he seemed to be debilitating, gaining weight (compared to his painting). But, he sure could get up and stand out his chair quick for almost a centenarian.
The next day, sure enough, we saw a great symbol of NEAT (Non Exercise Activity Time/thermogenesis), hand-washed clothes hung to be air line dried on a balcony in a local BZ village. The last person in the USA people might see putting clothes to line dry is Mrs. Cleaver from Leave It To Beaver.
We were there as the start of a day with a huge event: a village shepherds lunch done Old World style!
On our way out with our town host and contact, whose home was surrounded by fig trees, I couldn’t help but notice his abdominal girth. And it wasn’t uncommon for the guys we saw in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s...sad.
By arriving at the farm where we’d have a shepherd’s lunch to never forget, we were greeted with the classic row of elder men, ranging from mid 80’s to 101 years old. All ages were there from young children frolicking about on upwards.
They were all friends or family members. Miucho, our lunch host, was a handsome sheep shepherd and farmer (pigs and incredible vegetables shown to us by his enthusiastic friend, Stefano).
He took us on a mile long walk to shepherd his sheep back to their pen area. While they surely ate a lot of grass through the day, it was sad to see him have to throw out some dried corn feed onto the field to supplement their healthy grass pasture diet.
To me, it felt like the sheep rushed the corn “like drug addicts”. Fortunately, our interview with our “old guys” was inspirational. When we asked about needing docs, they laughed. When we asked about needing pills, they all laughed...well, except for the couple of gentlemen next to me whom it seemed felt both ignored and annoyed that we were intruding on their “guy time”.
But they all generously reaffirmed how to live a long life without prompting…paraphrasing them it kind of went along the same lines with each: “Don’t overdo food, move, be productive, be a good husband but don’t be ashamed to enjoy the company of ‘ladies’...and some vino wouldn’t hurt.”
I took a walk with our centenarian over dirt roads and, yes, I was nervous! That is, until I found out what he was basically muttering while we were walking wasn’t “my legs hurt” or “I think I might fall.” It was basically: “why aren’t I walking with the young lady instead of this dude?”
Of course, our guide, Valeria, obliged and gave our gracious centenarian a few steps together along with a smile and nice verbal exchange, to which he obliged us with a sincere smile and laugh as alive as you’ve ever seen.
He then obliged another request and proved not just his sense of humor, but his memory was also intact by reciting a poem almost perfectly (he only needed prompting once), for at least five minutes straight!
Nutritionally, the lunch was very insightful. No fish, just mostly grass fed pig and all mountain pasture fed goat. And, yes, the pig was fatty. But then again, no olive oil and a huge platter of raw and FRESH vegetables right out of the garden.
There was white bread, but not much. And there wasn’t virtually any part of the goat spared, including the intestines, some of which I ate (not bad, either).
Of course, it wouldn’t have been a Sardinian shepherds lunch without the Pecorino cheese made from sheep’s milk and the best Cannonau homemade Sardinian wine you’ve ever tasted.
Considering this would be their largest meal, which I reasonably estimated at 600-800 calories (including the fresh fruit dessert of honeydew and watermelon, as well as the appropriately small BZ portion-sized pastry), it was pretty lean.
My only regret was that we didn’t have enough time to speak with the physician who was there. I would’ve appreciated his perspectives a lot. But then again, it was nice to have pulled myself out of my comfort zone of clinical medicine and focused on the raw observations and lifestyle of the world’s deepest BZ for men.
But, as aforementioned, only ½ of Sardinia’s land mass is within a BZ, and only about 25% of it’s people are found within that land area. We ended up at a late night (by BZ standards) restaurant eating some pasta, bread, olive and some salad. All that driving put only about 5,000 steps in per day...the irony of it all!
Our last days trip brought us to a light BZ area on the west of Sardinia for what was going to be the most impressionable experience for me. We get to meet a retired 98-year old shepherd (he started with goats as a young man and transitioned to sheep).
Being born just before WWI, I was sure he saw much. He only left Sardinia three times, all to mainland Italy. In fact, almost none of our nonagenarians and centenarians virtually ever left their villages, let alone Italy.
He preached the same formula of long life to us, but with the most convincing delivery of all: “Don’t eat too much, move your body, always have work...even a small job (avoid idle time), get along with your wife (but it’s ok to make fun of her a little, I guess) and enjoy ‘just a little wine’...” and he didn’t smoke.
His skin was smooth and he could’ve easily been mistaken for a 78-year old man in the U.S.A. I could envision this man at 105 or 110. He still wanted to travel (to the U.S., of course!) and enjoyed Keith’s camera a lot.
But, I couldn’t help wondering if he may outlive his kind, but clearly obese, and sadly but obviously, unhealthy son. He might.We need to learn the lessons of the BZ’s lest I feel we in the US may suffer such a fate.