Minestrone soup.

Eat for longevity ... minestrone soup. Photo: Marina Oliphant

ROME: Doctors, dietitians and divines have long sought to identify the secret of a long life. The answer? Minestrone soup, according to nine siblings from Sardinia who have been recognised as the world's oldest in terms of combined age.

The oldest member of the Melis family, Consolata, was turning 105 yesterday, while the youngest of her siblings, Mafalda, is 78.

''To have such a large number of living siblings with an average age of more than 90 years is incredibly rare,'' the editor-in-chief of Guinness World Records, Craig Glenday, said on Tuesday of the Melises, who hail from Perdasdefogu in the mountainous Ogliastra province.

<em>Illustration: Cathy Wilcox</em>

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

''We believe Ogliastra contains the highest number of centenarians per capita in the world.''

Scientists have tried to work out what makes Sardinians live so long - 371 are over the age of 100, or 22 in every 100,000 - and credit genetic heritage, a frugal Mediterranean diet and a hardy lifestyle.

''We eat real food, meaning lots of minestrone and little meat, and we are always working,'' said Alfonso Melis, 89, who narrowly escaped being captured by German soldiers in World War II.

''Every free moment I have, I am down at my vineyard or at the allotment where I grow beans, aubergines, peppers and potatoes,'' he said.

''You just keep working and you eat minestrone, beans and potatoes,'' added his older sister Claudia, 99.

Consolata, who has had 14 children, nine of whom are still alive, plus 24 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren, still cooks and feeds her goats.

''My grandchildren have washing machines, dishwashers and vacuum cleaners, and when I hear them say, 'I am stressed', I don't understand,'' she told Corriere della Sera.

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