After we visit the clinic, pilia takes me up the hill to sample another mystifying factor presumably contributing to the Sardinians' longevity: traditional central Sardinian cuisine.
Many people would assume that because Sardinia is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea the centenarians have benefited from a lifetime's immersion in the Mediterranean diet, recently lauded for its emphasis on fish, vegetables, and artery-scrubbing olive oil. But those people would be wrong. "You have to remember, a lot of these centenarians are shepherds," Pilia explains as we take our seats at a little restaurant called La Pineta. "If you talk to people 80 years old in the mountains, they don't know how to swim, even though the sea is at most 20 minutes from their home."
We start with young white blocks of sour cream cheese, which, Pilia explains, is cultured from fresh sheep's milk, right in the field. The bread, pistoccu, is flat and hard, designed for travel and meant to be moistened with water. This is followed by a chunky porcini soup, made from mushrooms that grow like kudzu in these hills. Then a main course of roast suckling pig and a stew of lamb meat, hearts, liver, and intestines. And then more cheese.
Although the average centenarian would probably enjoy a feast like this only once a week or so, some of these dishes, like the cheeses and pistoccu, can make an appearance at almost every meal. Thus, the first rule of traditional Sardinian cuisine is paradoxically the same as the recent advertising slogan of the American Dairy Association: "Ahh, the power of cheese."
The reason this works for the Sardinian centenarians has to do with what else they're eating on their nonfeast days, namely, loads of fresh fruit, nuts, seeds, fava beans, and artichokes and other vegetables, all of which serve to flush their systems with a purgative of fiber, phytoactive vitamins, and minerals. Much of their food is also locally grown and milled (if not plucked right from their own gardens or herds), further upping its nutrients. For those of you following at home, it's a good argument for buying organic, and, indeed, to this day Sardinia supplies Italy with two-thirds of its organic food. Even their cheese and meat are healthier than the standard non-grass-fed American Saran-wrapped varieties, because the emphasis on natural grazing methods heightens the concentration of heart-healthy omega 3 and conjugated linoleic acids.
Of course, some features of Sardinian cuisine seem designed less for their nutritional value than for their ability to shock unsuspecting foreigners. Take the famous casu marzu, or "walking cheese," a fresh pecorino dotted with live cheese mite larvae. (Thankfully, it's out of season when I'm there.) I mean, I know maggots are a source of protein, but wouldn't chopped almonds have sufficed? Still, maggot cheese is not the strangest food they eat. That title would have to go to tordi.
These are small, four-inch-long songbirds that feed on Sardinia's plentiful myrtle berries. They are netted and poached, then served cold, three or four at a time, garnished with myrtle leaves. Their eyes are black, haunting, their necks spindly. They look like a plateful of baby dinosaurs. You are supposed to eat them whole – everything but the beak, in a few greedy crunches – but I begin with a small nibble on a leg. The meat is both gamey and floral, deeply flavorful and surprisingly delicious.
Tordi are typically consumed only at celebrations, although, like caviar or pigs in the blanket, they can make their own fun. "Even if you have nothing to celebrate, it is a party," explains my server. They speak, in other words, to a particularly Sardinian philosophy that the centenarians seem to understand: Whenever the occasion presents itself, you are not to merely suck the marrow from the bones of life, meager though they may be; you must crush the bones between your teeth and eat life whole. Except, of course, for the beak.