In the depths of early lockdown when we really couldn't leave our homes, I was desperate to taste and learn more about olive oils. We had our oil from Crete, and some others I'd been able to find in the UK, but I needed something extra...
Enter Johnny Madge, an international judge and one of the leading olive oil "tasters" in the world (more on that later)—and one of the most passionate ones I've met to date.
After a guided virtual tasting with a selections of oils he sent us from his favourite producers in Italy, I felt firmly on my way to start my journey into becoming an olive oil sommelier myself—totally inspired by the session and ready to seek out fine oils and the finer folks who made them.
One of the most crucial lessons to come out my talks with Johnny is this simple mantra: "Don't Drizzle. Pour."
It's this concept that people think extra virgin olive oil is only something to drizzle lightly over salads and use sparingly.
Some of this comes down to the downright dangerous misunderstandings around the value of fat—particularly the healthiest of fats and its role in nutrition—but also because the olive oil industry often gets in its own way by acting like this liquid gold is something to use only in small doses.
The reality of how EVOO is used in its native environment (around a traditional Mediterranean table) is as a foundational ingredient—not a condiment.
The idolised Mediterranean diet is really, at its core, the diet of Crete (where it all began). And look no further than their mountains of veg swimming in a bowl of oil to understand how they consume olive oil.
Here, in the sun-soaked villages of the world's oldest and healthiest populations, olive oil is not a drizzle. It's a pour.
Welcome to the Blue Zones.
All this brings me back to Johnny, who's doing the Lord's work across the Mediterranean preaching about that EVOO lifestyle, and how it's to be savoured, and not saved. Poured, not stored.
With that, I've asked this legendary character to share some of his wisdom with our Citizens...
1) What EVOO fact surprises people the most during your tastings?
The THING, not fact, that most surprises people is how good the oils can be: how intense, fresh and aromatic and, when I do simple pairings, how they can transform food.
2) You lead olive oil tours through some incredible places. Where are your favourite estates to visit?
In Castellon, north of València, people love the old trees—many over 1,000 years old; a mill built in 1606 they find fascinating, and they really enjoying seeing a modern mill minutes later where they can see (out of season, too, and quieter) how quality is achieved. In Italy, Mimí is an exemplary and beautiful modern mill.
3) Could you share 3 interesting food and EVOO pairings that you think everyone should try?
My favourite pairing is cannellini beans with garlic and sage.
If you have a tomatoey oil, mozzarella di bufala is very striking, and steak with a bitter and pungent oil is magical.
For vegetarians who don’t eat the steak: bruschetta with lots of salt and garlic, and a potent oil is surprisingly delicious with a fresh fig.
4) How many olive oils do you think people should have at home?
A keen foodie should try having 3 oils at home just to start experimenting with pairings.
5) What are the top things people should know about extra virgin olive oil?
EVOO can be cooked with and taken to 207C!Tomatoes cooked in EVOO INCREASE their polyphenol delivery apart from being delicious.
- Bitter oil may appear to be problematic but, paired with the right food at the right temperature (nobody talks about this), it has a magical, transformative quality much like a tannic red wine.
- Clean, stainless steel, hygienic technology make great oils not romantic, smelly old stone wheels and presses. These oils get better and better every year and now the machines express the characteristics clearly much like a cd lets you hear music better than an old cassette.
- Talking of music: extra virgin olive oil is defined as oil without defect. This is not subjective. An analogy: music might not be to your taste (subjective) but if the instruments are out of tune it is an objective fact just like extra virgin olive oil.
Other than preaching the Mediterranean philosophy of "Don't Drizzle, Pour!", Johnny gives us another reason as to why fresh, quality extra virgin olive oils are so magical on the plate: "Good, modern EVOO is like fresh herbs in liquid form."
More about Johnny:
Johnny Madge started tasting olive oil for the Slow Food Olive Oil Guide in Italy in 2004 and was the only non-Italian to do so. Being an English olive oil taster in Italy meant that Johnny got noticed and was invited to be part of a panel in the intriguing Extrascape competition where oils and the landscape they come from are judged together. Here he met Curtis Cord who invited him to the first New York International Olive Oil Competition to talk about bitterness in olive oil. There he met Alexandra Devarenne who invited him to judge in Olive Japan, then came Athena in Greece, the London Olive Oil Competition, Berlin Global, and Australian Olive.
In the meantime Johnny started his Olive Oil Tours in Italy (now Spain) and has been invited to talk about olive oil on TV, radio, and YouTube shows.
Now, in Valencia, Spain, Johnny continues with his tours and tastings but, most of all, is concentrating on food parings.
We'd highly recommend you do a farm-to-table tasting tour with him in Italy or around Valencia. Learn how on his site: www.johnnymadge.com
—Author: Sarah Vachon, olive oil sommelier and founder of Citizens of Soil.
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