By Lisa Radinovsky, editor of Greek Liquid Gold
Many scientific studies have provided evidence of olive oil’s health benefits and its central role in the Mediterranean diet.
Registered dietitian and nutritionist Elena Paravantes is a strong advocate of this healthy oil and the Greek Mediterranean diet where it plays a major role. She believes this oil and diet contributed to her progenitors’ longevity. For example, her grandfather lived 104 years.
Elena shared the story of her paternal grandfather, Constantinos “Dinos” Paravantes, who died in 1989 at age 104, having lived a few more years than his father did. Dinos was born in the village of Achladokambos, outside Tripoli in Peloponnese, Greece.
As Elena wrote on her Olive Tomato website, when visiting Achladokambos “I showed my children our family grave; looking at it you see so many people that had reached the ripe old age of 100! Including my great grandfather and my grandfather. Must be all that olive oil … and the stairs.”
According to tradition, the village was given an appropriate name when Greek Independence War leader Theodoros Kolokotronis first saw the countless olive trees around it. He exclaimed “Ach, ladokambos!” which means “Oh, oil plain!”
Olive oil in Achladokambos
However, turning his back on those olive groves, Constantinos Paravantes left his village for the USA. Passing through Ellis Island, where his name is on the list of immigrants, he settled in Michigan. There he opened a restaurant with his brother. But he was not happy that far from his native land and lifestyle. So when he was 40 years old, Dinos returned to Greece. For the “second half of his life,” Elena explained to Greek Liquid Gold, “he chose village life. He could have moved to Athens, but he chose village life.”
Back in Achladokambos, Dinos Paravantes managed his olive groves, sheep, and goats and enjoyed a low-stress lifestyle. Elena described her grandfather’s days in the village: “In the morning he would take his horse and go check on the shepherds and his sheep and goats.
He would return home for lunch and then nap for two hours. (Napping is an important contributor to longevity.) In the afternoon, after his Greek coffee, he would go check on his olive groves, and then later go by the kafeneio”—the traditional coffeehouse found in every Greek village where men tend to relax together for hours each day.
In his last years, Dinos played the mandolin, took walks, spent time with his family in the village and in Athens, and went to the kafeneio. Even when he suffered a stroke at age 100, he recovered fairly well and quickly. Why did he stay healthy so long?
“You can attribute it to a variety of things,” according to Elena: genetic inheritance, the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle, being calm and active. And his diet: what people were eating in Greek villages in the 1960s. The Greeks in villages were better off than those who lived in towns and cities, especially after World War II. They made their own feta cheese, tended fruit and vegetable gardens, and raised their own livestock for their meat and milk.
Living a traditional Greek village life
Elena’s grandfather liked meat, but it was usually goat. Goats are free-range creatures that eat wild greens, sources of omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants, so their meat is also a source of those healthy nutrients. Meat was not an everyday food, but it was eaten at celebrations that followed long religious fasting periods.
Like many observant Greek Orthodox individuals, Dinos Paravantes fasted 200 days each year: “My grandmother would make sure.” Elena believes fasting is underestimated in studies of the Mediterranean diet. Based largely on a vegetarian diet (including pulses), Greek Orthodox fasting also includes some seafood.
In Achladokambos, a mountainous village distant from the sea, fresh fish was available only twice a week in the summer, when a fishmonger visited, and Elena’s grandmother purchased some of his fish. Otherwise, her grandparents and other villagers tended to eat small amounts of preserved fish such as salted cod, sardines, or anchovies.
The salt in the preserved fish was not a concern, because in mid twentieth century Greek villages there were many fresh foods, and few that were processed. Even in the 1980s, there was just one little store in the village for coffee and such things.
Dinos’s wife never left the village to shop, so processed food was not part of the daily fare. “All dairy, eggs, meat, and olive oil were their own. They also had their own garden,” as Elena explained. Her grandmother’s cooking used a lot of olive oil, as her grandfather preferred. Olive oil was the “ever-present ingredient. When you make your own olive oil, you use generous amounts.”
As millennia of wisdom suggest, generous use of olive oil makes sense as part of a healthy diet and an active lifestyle. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates recommended olive oil for 60 health problems, plus longevity.
Olive oil’s praises ring out loud and clear from scientific journals to popular television networks and well-known periodicals that proclaim it part of the Best Diet year after year.
We cannot all live in a Greek village, but we can still approximate the Mediterranean diet whose flavors can help transport us to a state of well-being. Elena Paravantes encourages everyone to join her healthy, long-lived grandparents and great-grandparents in reaping the benefits of a traditional Greek diet.
* Lisa Radinovsky is the editor of Greek Liquid Gold: Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil website. The only wide-ranging English-language site focused on news and information from the Greek olive oil world, it has helped companies reach consumers in more than 215 countries around the globe.