One of the things to see in Rome is the keyhole of Malta. Visiting Malta is so much more than that glimpse into the world of the knights of Malta. The tiny central island just off of Sicily is as fantastical as one imagines it to be.
I visited on a cold winter day with torrential rains bucketing down like biblical times. Yes, I still loved it.
Maybe because of the weather, it was a better experience — free of the millions who flood the island every year searching for Gladiator or Game or Thrones…
The island of Malta has a long history as a embattled island due to its central location in the Mediterranean. To borrow from the Visit Malta site, “the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans and the Byzantines” and then the Berbers, Knights of Malta, French, and British all had influences on the island.
St. Paul was shipwrecked here in current era 60 (AD). This is a big deal. Christianity is a big part of the island. The Knights of Malta were a Christian order which is considered sovereign, but now they are a Christian humanitarian organization. They have had different names at different times in history but they ruled Malta from the 1500s (when they were given Malta as a territory after fleeing Rhodes after the rise of the Ottoman empire) to the 1800s.
Valletta has been the capital for 450 years and has a uniform look to it because it was built in three years. The buildings of the old town are all made of the same pale yellow rock that was quarried from the exact place where the buildings were built. In some ways, Valletta reminded me of the towns of Apulia like Lecce, Bari, and Polignano a mare. Maybe that is why I liked it so much. The stone is the same color as the stone used in Jerusalem.
Malta had a capital before Valletta was chosen. The old capital goes back 4,000 years and is located about 20 minutes drive from Valletta. Mdina, not to be confused with Medina, is the old capital and right outside its gate is Rabat, not to be confused with Rabat.
The language of Malta, like the people and culture, is also a mix. It has many words that are the same in Italian but I did not understand Maltese at all. No matter as they speak English as well.
Another reason to go to Malta is to see a Caravaggio painting. The church is also beautiful but to be in front of a Caravaggio is a special moment. This brings a visit to Malta full circle. Many consider Caravaggio to be the first cinematographer for his use of dramatic light and shadow. Malta, with its dramatic history, seems most famous now as a movie location.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
From the mill, we could see our lunch destination, across the valley, past neat green fields, impossibly pretty. Can this be real?
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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org, 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 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.
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.