Where the Mediterranean Diet was born

PioppiPollica. Not far from Paestum, Velia, Palinuro and Salerno. It was late August 2010, the end of a hot but not oppressively hot summer, which like every year was sparkling with the miraculous blue of the Cilento sea. Tourists swam with locals, and never too many, for here tourism has always taken its most civilized, unobtrusive form. Local shops sell strips of buffalo mozzarella, wrapped in myrtle leaves; crateloads of flaming Piennolo tomatoes, and bottles of Pisciotto olive oil. Turning our backs to the sea, the green of the Cilento National Park rises before us, dotted with tiny villages, each made up of a clutch of families. It was late August, when official news arrived that the Mediterranean Diet had been recognized by UNESCO as part of “humanity’s oral and cultural heritage”.

But only a few days later – the 5th September 2010 – the town would be rocked by the still-unresolved murder of Angelo Vassallo, mayor of Pollica. His death blew away the town’s jubilation at the UNESCO news, and put Pollica on the front pages for all the wrong reasons. But that is another sad story, which prompts shrieking and wailing even today.

But why was it specifically Pollica, and its wonderful seaside hamlets like Acciaroli and Pioppi, that celebrated the news from UNESCO with such emotion. Why does the Mediterranean Diet have such special importance here?

To understand, we have to go back some eighty years to the Second World War, when a young American medic and biologist Ancel Keys (b.1904) disembarked at Paestum with Allied troops. As a doctor, Keys had already won fame for his studies of soldiers’ diets in wartime, and had even invented the so-called K Ration (‘K’ for Keys), which consisted of easily portable, easily digestible portions that provided soldiers with the energy they needed. K Rations were discontinued after the Second World War. 

After the War, Keys returned to the United States and made Minneapolis his hometown. But in the 1960s, having discharged his duties with the army, he decided to go back to those marvellous places that he had discovered in wartime, and continue to research the theories he had developed while sampling Italian ingredients in the simplest, purest forms. Wheat, mozzarella, tomatoes, fish, legumes, olive oil, and the wealth of fruit and vegetables that grow in the fertile volcanic soil of Campania.

Both Keys and his wife Margaret, in fact, were keen to scientifically demonstrate that certain food cultures, especially in the Mediterranean basin, guaranteed a higher level of cardiac health than any other eating regime. This, they believed, was due mainly to a lower fat content, which reduces the risk of diabetes, arteriosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases in general.

From the 1950s onwards, the Keys kept coming to Italy more and more frequently, especially to the southern regions of Campania and Calabria; they also visited Spain, Greece and Morocco. In 1959 Keys published what would become his defining book, How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way, in which the phrase “Mediterranean Diet” was coined for the first time.

The book’s success was explosive, securing Keys an appearance on the cover of Time magazine, which named him 1961’s man of the year. In 1962, Keys decided to pursue his studies on-site, as it were, and put down his roots in the Cilento area of Campania. He was bewitched by the fertile landscape, bursting with figs, almonds, carobs, myrtle and olives; and bought a house in Pioppi, a house which he named Minnelea in honour of Minneapolis. To be precise, it was a few miles from Pioppi itself, in the ancient village of Velia, which claimed the Greek philosophers Parmenides and Zeno among its historic residents.

The Keys spent decades in the Cilento, observing the culinary habits of the locals: habits that had barely changed over millennia, not counting of course the tomato. They found that Italy, and the Mediterranean area in general, has based its diet on certain unwritten rules and customs, which encourage a longevity of life known in few other parts of the world. And they found that, crucially, certain areas like Cilento married this healthy diet with an unpolluted, relatively stress-free lifestyle, along with a pleasant, sunny climate.

“We loved eating that simple, wonderful food,” said Keys in an interview. “Homemade minestrone, endless kinds of freshly prepared pasta, served in tomato sauce and something with a sprinkling of grated cheese, sometimes not. It was very rarely enriched with any kind of meat, but maybe with some locally-caught fish. Or short pasta with beans, bread fresh out of the oven, and never smothered with anything; fresh vegetables in abundance, and maybe a little bit of meat or fish, but only once or twice a week. Good, honest table wines, and always fresh fruit for dessert.”

Ancel and Margaret lived more than forty years in Pioppi, in Cilento, and the town remains a scientific hub for those who study and promulgate the Mediterranean Diet. Keys died in 2004 in Minneapolis, two months shy of his 101st birthday.

I imagine that everyone has a general idea of what the Mediterranean Diet is, but there’s a good summary on the website of Fondazione Veronesi, which occupies itself with cancer research. We can read on the website fondazioneveronesi.it: “The Mediterranean Diet is more than a simple list of foodstuffs; it is a style of life. It is a pyramid, at the bottom of which we have a lot of greens, along with a fair amount of fruit and cereals (preferably wholegrain). Next level up, we find milk and other low-fat dairy products, like yoghurt, of which we should eat around 2-3 125ml portions per week. At this point in the pyramid we also find extra-virgin olive oil – which should be consumed raw but in moderation, roughly 3-4 spoonfuls a day – while garlic, onion, spices and herbs should replace salt in terms of seasoning, as is the Mediterranean way. Apart from olive oil, other beneficial fats are provided by shell fruits and olives, in one or two 30g portions per week. As we near the top of the pyramid, we find a number of foodstuffs that should be eaten more weekly than daily: these are our main sources of protein, and the ones we should favour in particular are fish and legumes, with at least two portions of each per week. We can also eat 2-3 weekly portions of poultry, between 1 and 4 eggs per week, and no more than a couple of 100g portions of cheese, 50g if the cheese is aged. At the apex of the pyramid, we find foods that should be consumed in great moderation: no more than two weekly portions (of 100g) of red meat; processed meat, such as salamis, should be eaten even more sparingly (no more than 50g per week). As for sweets and sugary foods, we should eat them as little as possible.”