Johnny Madge, British by birth, has lived most of his life in Italy and has become an olive oil expert. I met with him at Osteria Vigna , which he co-owns, in the medieval borgo of Casperia, north of Rome. He ships oil around Italy and to the US, offers oil tastings and tours, and organizes cooking classes with an emphasis on the use of olive oil.
As we tasted, he outlined a few key facts:
–“Extra Virgin”, the highest grade of oil, means “No Defect” (read more below), while “Virgin” has a slight defect. Everything else is “Lampante”, oil not fit for human consumption.
–Common defects are: rancid (Oil has oxidized), fusty (olives have begun to ferment–swampy smell), mustiness (a moldy or musty scent), winey (a wine or vinegar scent or flavor).
–“Extra Virgin” or “Virgin” can only derive from a mechanical process, not a heating or refining process. (“Cold pressed” on a label is redundant but refers to this fact.)
-Unlike wine, oil doesn’t improve with age. It spoils (usually goes rancid). Best within two years of the harvest.
–There are 628 varieties of olives in Italy. The variety largely determines the way the oil tastes. Some are light and smooth, others very pungent and bitter.
–All olives are first green, then, ripen into black. They only turn brown if they fall to the ground and rot. Picking earlier means fresher, grassier oil.
–Olive oil labeling is often misleading and sometimes fraudulent, partly because the labeling standards are largely subjective (above) and partly because it is relatively easy (and very lucrative) to adulterate oil. (Read more below.)
–Bitterness or “pepperyness” is a sign of quality. It indicates high levels of polyphenols, which carry the health benefits associated with oil.
–Less acidity means higher quality. (It’s impossible to taste acidity in oil.)
In this video, Johnny explains how to taste oil.
After his instruction, we began tasting samples. He started by saying, “When a good oil is made, freshness (like fresh cut grass) is sealed in the bottle.”
Then, he told me how different oils made from different varieties change the taste of simple foods like bread and mozzarella. “If you don’t have much time to cook,” he told me,”you can change very simple foods into something delicious by adding different kinds of high quality oil. I have a whole gamut of oils and pair them with food the way you pair wine.”
The first oil, Agrestis Nettaribleo, is an organic DOP oil from “Tonda Iblea” olives grown near Siracusa (Syracuse) in Sicily. Johnny describes as being “tomato-ey, juicy, seductive, like a good Merlot wine” (easy to approach).
Olivastro by Quattrococchi is made from the “Itrana” olive variety grown south of Rome in the region of Lazio, close to the border with Abruzzo. Also organic, the oil is bitter and spicy, but still in the words of Johnny, “very seductive”. “It tastes like summer,” he said.
We tasted it on its own and with these homemade ravioli.
Lastly, we tried the last oil, also made with “Itrana” olives, that had been infused with lemon: Cetrone.
It was perfect with these rolls of bresaola wrapped around arugula.
All were paired with, Verdello IGT, a light, white amphora wine from a small, organic producer nearby, La Palazzola of Stefano Grilli.
As an internationally recognized taster, who learned at the ONAOO, Johnny is on a mission to educate consumers and chefs about the wonders of real olive oil and the increasing presence of adulterated or mislabeled oil on the market. For example, seed or nut oil or low grade “Lampante” oil is often imported into Italy, bottled and labeled “Made In Italy”.
Price pressure is so strong that producers of “real” oil find that they cannot sell their oil. Johnny’s friend and fellow oil expert, Tom Mueller has written a book on the subject called Extra Virginity. He first published an article in the New Yorker.
On the brighter side of things, Johnny took me to see one of the largest olive trees in the world.
It’s majestic shape and elegant branches were woven into a canopy above.
And new growth was sprouting out, indicating that the old tree was still full of vitality.
The day ended with a beautiful sunset on the piazza of Casperia.
To buy oil, do a tour or tasting, or organize a cooking class, contact Johnny:
Piazza Umberto I
Read more about Casperia.