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According to the BBC online life calculator, I’ll probably live until I am 83. If I was a woman, 85. If I had been born in Burundi, I’d already be dead as I would be in Afghanistan, Burma, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. If I had been born in Haiti I’d have been dead for decades.

Living in anywhere in Spain is preferable to Helsinki though not quite as good as Geneva or Okinawa.

With these thoughts on longevity I make my way along the narrow, cobbled streets towards my friend’s apartment.  It’s eight in the evening and already dark. Here, streets empty quickly in winter and only now and then do I pass a fellow pedestrian, hands in pockets, hunched against the bitter cold, much like me. Walking along my eyes are drawn to the large astragal windows, brightly lit, curtains yet to be drawn, the furniture and paintings within telling passers-by this is a well-to-do area. In one of the windows a handsome, white parrot in an expensive-looking cage is clearly visible. Behind it, on a crimson-papered wall, a large impressionist painting hangs majestically. Swirls of green, blue, and red surrounded by a large and elaborate gilded frame somehow accentuates the poor beasts’ captivity and disconsolate look on its face.

On the walls, grinning menacingly, a collection of native Polynesian masks.

Soon I arrive at my friend’s house. I ring the buzzer. His lives on the second floor. As I go up I can’t help reflecting on the simplicity of the stairs with its bare stone steps, thin wooden bannisters supported by spindly metal rods and uneven walls – features of Georgian architecture which gave no importance to communal areas but went overboard, once inside, with excessively large rooms, high ceilings, elaborate cornices, huge marble fireplaces and massive windows inevitably overlooking a city garden. When I arrive at the landing, slightly breathless, the door is already open. The warmth of the apartment and home cooking soon envelopes me in a comforting embrace.

Organised chaos reigns supreme. In the hallway wooden and cardboard boxes of wine are stacked against the wall. As I take my coat off I just have enough time to surreptitiously glance at some the boxes. Batailley, Jadot, Pierre Yves and Meursault some of the names my brain quickly deciphers. A door, left ajar just in front of me, reveals more wine in shelves and on a small table I can see red wine has already been decanted. The kitchen is also visible from the hallway, incongruously modern with a grey stone island where a pot gently simmers and various cheeses, still wrapped in cheesemonger’s wax paper, neatly wait in a nearby worktop.

Entering the sitting room magazines and newspapers lie in piles and the immense room is populated by a variety of unmatched sofas and chairs clearly chosen for comfort alone. On the walls, grinning menacingly, a collection of native Polynesian masks easily neutralised by a gentle piano sonata radiating from an old-fashioned record player.

Sitting in a large, winged armchair with a glass of red wine in one hand and a magazine on the other is Walter, the man I have come to meet. Walter has just celebrated his one hundredth birthday. Walter is my friend Jonathan’s uncle.

I can’t recall when I first met Jonathan. It must be twenty or more years ago. What I do know is wine would have been the reason we met. Perhaps at a wine merchants tasting or a mutual friend’s wine dinner. Since then we have shared many bottles. It was at my flat over a bottle of Burgundy that the subject of wine and longevity came up. Jonathan told me his father, who was teetotal, had died in his sixties yet his uncle Walter, a committed vinophile would soon be celebrating his one hundredth birthday. I asked Jonathan if there was any obvious reason for the disparity in their longevity? Was it genetic perhaps? Diet? Exercise?

Mostly in moderation, and rarely without food, unless it was Champagne.

Jonathan laughed, “Let’s hope its wine! He is coming for dinner next week. Come and talk to him yourself. I am sure he would be delighted to answer your questions”.

Walter had no trouble getting from the sofa to meet my extended hand. It was difficult to believe this man had been born just after the first world war. I would have placed him in his mid-seventies. Soon I had a glass of wine in my hand. After some chitchat Walter asked me what I thought of the wine. I got the impression he was testing me, though he was kind enough to tell me it was an old Rioja, saving me the embarrassment of placing the wine in the wrong country – or worse still, the wrong continent. Whatever I answered must have satisfied Walter and soon I felt I had known this man for a long time.

Walter had been born in a well-to-do family. He had been privately educated and his early life had been fairly predictable and mostly uneventful. He had studied classics at Cambridge and was a keen photographer. During the war, he had joined the RAF as a reconnaissance photographer. Walter survived though, smiling, he admitted that in spite of countless sorties into enemy territory, he never lost his fear of flying. After he was demobbed, Walter went to work for an insurance company; a tedious and boring job, according to Walter. In the fifties, after being left a generous inheritance, Walter went to live in Florence where he spent his days with his camera and extending his knowledge on Italian history and art. He was helped by a brilliant but impoverished professor who was delighted to spend time with Walter and earn a little foreign currency. It was in Florence that Walter first became interested in wine and since then Walter had always drunk wine with his meals, though mostly in moderation, and rarely without food, unless it was Champagne.

When I asked him how he was managing to staying so young and fit he said he really didn’t know, though in Italy the professor had in introduced him to a dish which the professor claimed Michelangelo had eaten every day giving him extraordinary strength and vitality and allowing Michelangelo to reach almost ninety years of age in an era when medicine was poorly understood. According to the professor wine also featured highly in the artist’s diet. The dish was Carne dei Poveri, or pauper’s meat, better known as chickpeas. Being such a simple dish to make Walter, like Michelangelo, has eaten this most days always accompanied by crusty bread and a good red wine. Walter wrote the recipe for me:

Italy was still suffering from the ravages of the war when Walter arrived in Florence. Meat was hard to come by and Walter developed a love of vegetables which he maintains to this day, only occasionally eating red meat. Though he did say that he loved well-made sausages now and then. As far as exercise, Walter has walked everywhere, though he never participated in any sport other than golf. His knees, he told me, were still in perfect working order. He drinks tea and coffee though he doesn’t like water unless he is thirsty, preferring weak tea or water mixed with wine. Walter said he loves fruit and the odd bit of cake and chocolate. He had been happily married and has always considered himself lucky, never worrying too much about anything.

Walter’s favourite wines are Chianti and Champagne.


Carnei di Poveri, Leek and Fennel Soup

Serves two

Ingredients

  • 1 can of chickpeas (or dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and cooked if you have the time)
  • 1/2 litre of vegetable stock
  • Olive oil
  • 2 shallots, finely diced
  • 2 leeks, sliced
  • 1 fennel bulb, sliced
  • Salt and pepper

Method

  1. Sweat the vegetables in olive oil.
  2. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Combine chickpeas and stock with the cooked vegetables.
  4. Simmer until chickpeas are very tender.
  5. Set a quarter of the vegetables aside and blitz the rest in a blender.
  6. Add the remaining chick peas and vegetables and serve with additional olive oil.
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