On a recent trip to Italy for a friends wedding we visited Rome for the week, after a few days of exploring the historical city we decided to escape the busy streets and long lines for a day in the beautiful countryside. After reading hundreds of wonderful reviews we booked an olive farm tour with Johnny Madge. Johnny Madge is an olive oil expert, international olive oil taster and judge. He first visited Italy as a young boy and fell in love with the country, he worked and lived in the country for some time before he bought land in 1986 to start making olive oil.
Our tour began in Fara Sabina, extending up into the beautiful Sabine hills and the Sabina landscape. We slowly made our way along the windy roads with plenty of stops to smell the wild herbs and discover the variety of olives. We visited a tree believed to be 2000 years old, likely planted by the Romans. We saw a large number of olive trees over 500 years old, the trees are ancient and elegant looking. Amongst the olive trees were large fig trees, the figs were delightful to eat fresh. Wild mint, asparagus and fennel grow like weeds amongst the olive trees and the smell of these herbs is more pungent and beautiful than anything alike. Johnny shared his wealth of knowledge with us about the olive trees, the process of making good quality olive oil, how to recognise quality oil and pairing olive oil with foods – his mantra is “don’t drizzle, pour”. I am going to do my best to share what we learnt.
Once we reached the other side of the Sabine hills, we visited a Mill and were taught the process of making olive oil. In short and as described by Johnny “perfect olives, crushed immediately in clean mills”. In detail, also explained by Johnny, the process begins with picking the olives from the trees, some farms use machinery that shakes the olives from the tree, others use a rake shaped tool and some pick by hand. The olives are then transported to the Mill, weighed and pumped into the machine. The olives are then washed in clean water and transferred to the next section of the machine which crushed the olives into a paste (pit included most of the time) which is now the consistency similar to hummus. The paste is then transferred to a machine called a malaxer, the temperature inside the malaxer is 27 degrees Celsius (thought olive oil was cold pressed? Not entirely, I will explain this later). The paste remains in the machine for 10-15 minutes (time can vary depending on the harvester) until it begins to glisten, the paste is then transferred to a centrifugal machine which separates the solids, water and oil. The oil is then transferred to a smaller centrifugal which takes out the remaining water, the oil is then filtered, bottled and ready to consume.
Many olive oils are marketed as cold pressed because the temperature used in the process isn’t as high as industrial made oils. Industrial oils are made at much higher temperatures between 40-50 degrees Celsius, this makes for a quicker process and higher yields of oil. Some heat, as mentioned in the process earlier (27 degrees) is essential in the process of making good quality olive oil to bring out the oil from the paste.
After the visit to the Mill, we drove up a steep hill where lunch was prepared for us by a beautiful Italian family who also makes olive oil themselves. Here we tasted and smelt a variety of oils and were taught how to smell a defect and what good quality olive oil should taste like.
Good quality olive oil should smell fruity, similar to tomatoes; however, smells can vary depending on the type of olive used to make the oil. Bad olive oil, Johnny described as smelling like cat pee, this type of olive oil has some sort of defect in it. Johnny passed around a defected olive oil and most of us thought it smelt like ‘normal olive oil’, this gave us some indication of how much defected olive oil there is on the market. After comparing the quality oil and the defected oil I can tell the difference and I will never be able to look at olive oil the same.
The colour of the olive oil does not determine the quality of the oil, it can be a reflection of the processing method, the freshness and the variety of olive which has been used. One of the oils we tasted, Johnny referred to as the best oil in the world, was a bright green colour. In the judging arena, points aren’t awarded based on the colour as this could be added during processing rather than indicate freshness and quality. The options of light, medium and robust flavour are indications of the flavour strength only.
628 species of olives grow in Italy, the variety largely determines the way the oil tastes. Some are light and smooth, and some are bitter and pungent. Bitterness or “pepperiness” is a sign of quality. It indicates high levels of polyphenols, which carry the health benefits associated with olive oil. Different flavour oils can have different purposes, for instance, bitter oils don’t work great in salads, yet compliment meat dishes very well. The opposite is also true, a smooth oil will compliment very basic salads.
You may now be wondering what defected means, Johnny metaphorically described defected oil as ‘like an out of tune guitar’, meaning if an oil is defective, it’s not a subjective claim, it is a fact, different to a tune of music which may be appreciated by some but not by others, if a guitar is out of tune it is obvious. Defected oil is sold and marketed as ‘Virgin olive oil’, common defects are: rancid (the oil has oxidised), fusty (olives have begun to ferment and have a swampy smell), mustiness (a mould or musty scent) and winey (a wine or vinegar scent or taste). ‘Extra Virgin’ means without defect and is the highest grade of olive oil. ‘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). At lunch, we taste tested so called ‘Extra Virgin Olive oil’ from well-known brands we cannot disclose and were able to discern its defective nature. You cannot always trust what’s on the label, the only way to know for sure is to smell the oil. You can also look for a label which states the date when the olives were harvested, this will generally mean the brand cares about the quality and you should too. Cobram Estate is an Australian brand which is internationally recognised for its quality, this comes recommended from Johnny himself and will be the oil I use from now on.