I Love Olive Oil — Tasting with Johnny Madge

Tomato bruschetta

Tomatoes are juicy and red,
Olive oil is gold and green,
Mozzarella is creamy and white,
And Johnny Madge is keen.

I felt inspired to write a cheesy poem!

Johnny Madge loves, lives, breathes olive oil. He even has “I Love Olive Oil” written on his van. Oddly, that is the least of the reasons to go on his olive oil tour. Sorry, Johnny. It’s not just about the oil.

Imagine living here.

If anyone is a natural at what they do, then it’s the legendary Johnny Madge. Taking an olive oil tasting class with him feels less like a class, and more like you just happen to have a wise friend who is an expert on olive oil… wild plants… wine… life? There are some professors and tour guides who seem scripted in their style of teaching. All respect to them, but Johnny is not one of them. Johnny Madge speaks with the ease of someone who knows vastly more than they are telling you. It reminds of advice a writing teacher once told me, “Make sure you know everything about the character, and then put none of that in your story.” Once in a while you meet people who are more than the product they sell. The fact that he has a British accent just makes everything he says sound more credible. It’s easy to get a crush on him (olive oil joke).

Johnny Madge inside an olive tree.

As I said, the olive oil tasting was a minor part of the day. The whole day was a celebration of good extra virgin olive oil (and the lifestyle that it symbolizes). Johnny Madge has a sensational high rating on TripAdvisor and rightly so.

He will pick you up from the train station in Fara Sabina (a small town about 35 minutes on the regional train line from Rome) in his van which can seat eight. If you drive your own car, you can follow him like the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The whole day had that fairytale feel to it as we meandered the undulating lanes.

You might wonder what could take so long. The pace is set by the lovely small streets along the neat rows of olive trees, the green hedges, and azure sky above gently rolling country. The tour starts in an olive tree orchard. Johnny will tell you about olive trees, the recent devastating fires, harvesting, and other facts about the trees. Did you know that an olive tree can survive a fire? As you walk around enjoying the clean air of the countryside, he will show wild edible plants like wild fennel, and explain other plants if you ask him (I asked about a seed that I found which it turns out inspired Leonardo da Vinci to invent the helicopter). Or you can wander away and sit in the shade of an olive tree. There are no demands that you pay attention and no exam. No stress.

Don’t drizzle, pour.

After the orchard, he takes you to visit the largest olive tree in Europe. The tree is famous for being large, but it was comforting to meet such an old tree. It is perhaps 2,000 years old but no one really knows. Olive oil trees hollow out making it hard to count rings. When we were there admiring the tree, the owner came out to chat with Johnny. They were clearly friends catching up with each other.

Then back to admire the vegetable garden. All the while, Johnny regales you with stories and anecdotes, pointing out this and that along the way. As a city person, it’s interesting to see Swiss chard growing like a weed. One could feel the pace of life slowing down to that sweet art of doing nothing (a saying in Italian)… the art of enjoying the sweet life.

The mill is entering prime time. They got game.

After this, we went to an olive oil mill, Il Frantoio Saporito, which, with a new store, a new YouTube video, new Instagram account, is ready for primetime. They got game.

Outside the main hangar-size building, there is a metal car scale built in to the parking lot. When the local farmers need their olives processed, they drive their olive-laden cars on to the scale. After the initial weigh-in, the car is emptied of olives. Then the car is weighed again. The client pays by weight. I say client because it turns out that many Italians own a small patch of olive trees and make their own olive oil each year. After the weighing, the olives get cleaned, crushed, and spun. In the old days, the olive mash would be squeezed in reed mats but now, the oil is extracted using centrifugal force. Super high quality olive oil is spun for a mere seven minutes — thus ensuring that minimal heat is created — making it truly cold pressed. Most extra virgin olive oil is spun for 30 minutes. After spinning, the oil is filtered. Olive oil doesn’t need to be filtered but it’s better to avoid the sludge at the bottom of the bottle. Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age.

There is also something about what can be called “virgin” and “extra virgin” — the “virgin” olive oil is defective. Shocker. I think that he explained that defective doesn’t mean undrinkable. But I wasn’t paying attention… I guess I’ll have to go on another tour. If you want to geek out a bit, read this newsletter. Olive oil’s quality is not based on color. How deep is that? Professional tastings happen with blue glasses.

When we came by, they surprised us with bruschetta (the green is pistacchio paste).

The mill has just opened a shop on site where small bottles of olive oil cost 5 euro and large bottles cost 8 euro. I didn’t get a photo of the shop because I was too busy shopping! They also sell flavored oils, but not garlic flavor (Romans really don’t eat much garlic), and spreads like pistachio with pesto. I think I spent around 90 euros… because I wasn’t sure when I’d get back. That said, the mill will deliver and you can purchase online. I don’t know if it was pre-arranged (despite what Johnny said) but when we visited the mill, they gave us freshly made bruschetta, which had been toasted on the olive tree wood barbecue. I’m not sure it gets better than that, in terms of experiential shopping experiences.

Maybe it was a mirage.

From the mill, we could see our lunch destination, across the valley, past neat green fields, impossibly pretty. Can this be real?

This course was maybe fourth?

Lunch was a leisurely feast of multiple courses including creamy cannelloni beans, crunchy bruschetta with tomato, cheese, golden oven roasted potatoes, yummy lasagne, and not too sweet apple pie. Johnny brought lots of wine to pair, but it was mostly about the olive oil pairings. Every dish had olive oil. At this point, Johnny explained how to taste olive oil and we tried a few straight up. I did not like most of the oil when tasted alone. I preferred the oil on the food. We actually started with olive oil on a chocolate crostini which brought happy memories of my days in El Cacaotal in Lima. I can’t wait to get these food nerds together and watch them nerd out.

Chocolate crostini.

To contact Johnny for olive oil tastings, or to feature him in your documentary or to hire him as an expert (he was in Pasta Grannies! Name drop!), here is how to contact him: Johnny Madge, oliveoil@johnnymadge.com, www.johnnymadge.com, +39 328 339 8479. He speaks English and Italian.

The olive oil tour, including lunch, wine, and olive oil tasting, cost 110 euro per person. The train costs 2.80 euro each way. You can also drive there in 35 minutes and leave your car at the train station or follow him around the countryside.

The vegetarian lasagne made me want to be vegetarian.

The day out was fabulous. Johnny loves olive oil and after a day with him, you might love olive oil as much as Johnny. Or maybe him.

A pomegranate tree in bloom.

If you really want to get an idea of how pleasant the day was (I mean, how olive oil is made!), enjoy this video by the mill again.

I end this with a version of the roses are red poem from Les Mis. We did go a-touring in the countryside of Rome where the pomegranate blossoms were orange and I loved, loved, loved it.

We will buy very pretty things
A-walking through the suburbs.
Violets are blue, roses are red,
Violets are blue, I love my loves.

I have also made a video of my own. Nothing compared to the mill’s… but, enjoy the song by Ed Sheeran and Andrea Bocelli. It’s perfect.

Coffee Brands in Italy

In Italy, every coffee bar/cafe, has a different brand of coffee. Why? Because they get their dishware etc. sponsored by the brand. If you only drink a certain brand of coffee, then you have to drink at a certain cafe.

While coffee beans are not grown in Italy, the Italians are quite obsessed with coffee. But it’s not a fashion item. It’s more that they drink espressos all day long, at about a rate of one every few hours. It’s a social event as well so if someone says, “shall we have a coffee?” then they are inviting you to be sociable.

A “caffe” is by default an espresso. One way to tell if you have become a local is if the barista assumes that you mean an espresso when you order a “caffe” — rather than double checking with you that it’s an espresso that you want and not an “americano” (which is an espresso with hot water added).

I’ve had many awful cups of espresso here so far and some are okay ones. I prefer them without sugar so I can actually taste the coffee. Italians almost always add sugar. It’s like the equivalent of a Redbull. A shot of caffeine to get you through the next couple of hours. An espresso has half the caffeine of a cup of filtered drip coffee. The key is to drink the espresso quickly and chase it with a glass of water or a sweet baked item.

Coffee was introduced to Europe through Venice a few centuries ago and the oldest coffee shop, Cafe Florian, is still in business in Venice. The second oldest, Antico Cafe Greco, is in Rome, right by the Spanish Steps.

As for Starbucks, there is one in Milan. Or go to Seattle for them, and enjoy the many types of coffee in Italy when you are in Italy.

Pithy Lemons of Sorrento

Campania, Sorrento, and regular lemon.

For my fruit fetishist friends, I will try many strange fruits. The Sorrento lemon is not so strange. It’s just big and pithy. The rind can be consumed and it does not have a strong taste. The rind is mostly used for candied fruit. The taste of the Sorrento lemon is much like a normal lemon. What is strange is biting into it like one would an apple.

The Campania lemon is rounder with a think orangish rind. It has a strong aroma but is not as tasty as a Sorrento lemon. Sorrento is in Campania so technically it’s also a lemon from Campania but it’s the equivalent of Champagne or sparkling wine.

The Real Cucina Povera Is Vegetarian

These are salad greens, which are different from cooking greens.

In almost all cooking or travel shows about Rome, “cucina povera” — the poor kitchen, is featured with the host shown noshing at the offal of some animal. Invariably, they will also mention the fifth quarter, the quinto quarto, which is what is left after the other parts were shared between the nobles, clergy, bourgeoisie, and military.

Borage. I think.

What if you were vegetarian? I’m being facetious, because if you are poor, you eat what you can. Most poor people, through history, have been vegetarian. On a side note, the pig is the only barnyard animal that is worth more when dead. Most animals are worth more for their eggs, milk, wool, etc.

Cooked chicory greens. Available every single day.

Italians have been poor for most of their history (from long before there was a nation called Italy — created in 1861) and their cuisine has grown from necessity. As recently as a few generations ago, there were times of famine. Eating offal such as heart, tripe, and other organ meat, would have been rare. The daily food would have been vegetables, bread, pasta, and legumes, such as wild greens and beans. Even today, there are dishes such as puree of fava beans served with chicory greens. Vegetables that would be considered weeds are normal food in Italy. Dandelion and other wild greens that are now on Michelin star menus have been normal food here for centuries. Things like beet tops/greens which would be animal feed in other countries, is normal human fodder.

Dandelion?

Parmesan cheese has over thirty percent protein so it is considered a good source of protein when meat is not available. It is called “the poor man’s meat” or was, but it certainly is not for the poor anymore. Meat is cheaper. There are even recipes that call for toasted breadcrumbs — this was if you could not even afford cheese.

Broccoli greens.

I recently discovered another frugal use of dairy. Ricotta is made from the whey leftover from the making of cheese. In Puglia, they take the ricotta and let it ferment to become “Ricotta Forte” a strong cream cheese product that is picante because its sourness will bite you in the back of the throat. I have not asked but it’s probably “good for you” which normally means they need to convince you to eat it…

Fortunately, there is olive oil. Even the poor can afford it. Italy was a mostly agricultural society and even today there are many small farmers. Many big city families still own an olive tree orchard and produce their own olive oil each year.

Today is mother’s day in Italy, but really, every day is mother’s day in Italy. While men are often the famous chefs, it’s the mothers who do the majority of the cooking. They can even turn weeds into comfort food.

Taking a Taxi in Rome

I find it weird not being allowed to flag down a taxi on the street. In Rome, you must use a taxi stand, telephone, text, or app to get a taxi. This site has great information. The taxi stands are marked with an orange taxi sign and the taxis are always white. Some may be vans and some are in not so great condition, but they are always white. (Uber is only Uber Black which usually a luxury car and very expensive, and as I write this, maybe they have outlawed that as well.) There are lots of taxi stands all over the city of Rome but during these pandemic times, not all have taxis waiting around. The taxis have plastic barriers (well, most do) between the driver and the customers and generally the windows are open to help keep the air flowing. Everyone wears a mask. The base rate is €3 (three euro). Most rides around the center of Rome cost about 5-16 euro. No tipping although you can leave them the change. On regular city rides, the taxi driver will help you with your bags at no extra cost. Generally the drivers don’t speak English. If I can’t explain where I want to go, then I show them on my phone.

The taxi stand by Piazza Navona.

If you use an app like ITaxi (Italy Taxi) or Free Now, you can get a taxi anywhere you happen to be. The taxi meter starts when they ACCEPT the ride, not when you get in the car! This is what is shocking to most foreigners. Most of the rides I’ve taken have started at about €4.40 by the time I got in the car. This also means that the taxi will wait for you. It’s on you and not them. So it’s easier for me to get them show up. It is possible to pay by credit card and the drivers never have change for a 50. (Also, they have a color rating system for customers… one day I read the phone screen of the taxi driver and I could see my name and that I was “gold” level.) It is also possible to call or text to request a cab, but I prefer the app. I just wish that I could input the name of a restaurant instead of an address.

Airports: The rates from and to the two main airports, Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport (FCO) and Ciampino International Airport “G. B. Pastine” (CIA), are set to the Aurelian walls of the city. But, then it’s metered so while the base cost is 48 and 30 euro, it will cost you more. Tell the taxi driver that you want the set price so that at least that is a known quantity. From Fiumicino, a taxi ride to the historic center of Rome will probably cost in the 50-60 euro range (ride is about an hour) and from Ciampino (ride is about half an hour), from 30-40 euro. Plus extra for extra luggage.

Although you can walk everywhere in Rome, there are a lot of hills and groceries get heavy… Of course, people do flag down taxis on the street… but you are not supposed to.