Johnny Madge is an international olive oil taster and judge who has been taking people on his Johnny Madge Olive Oil Tour since 2009. Here is what he wrote about the olive – oil-aperitif organized by Olissea in the historic Wine Shop Buccone in Rome last December 6th!
Recently I was invited to an “olive oil apertivo”, beautifully organised by Olissea who had brought along three producers: Mattia Marcantoni from il Conventino in Monteciccardo (PU) in the Marche, Francesco Le Donne from Villa Pontina in Sonnino (LT) in Lazio and Vito Girone from Ganga Lupo in S. Spirito (BA) in Puglia. This olive oil tasting was being held in the historic Buccone wine bar in Via di Ripetta, a stone’s throw from Piazza Del Popolo. one of Rome’s most famous and inspiring squares. So it was that three very distinct regions were represented: the Marche, Lazio and Puglia, each with their own distinctive varieties: Raggiola, Itrana and Coratina. Each producer showed people how to taste their oil and described the different attributes.
I am obsessed with oil and food pairing so it was a pleasant surprise to see the different dishes that were offered for people to understand how each very different oil can transform food. What I most liked about the evening was the modesty and generosity that you could see in these people who have dedicated their lives to producing high quality oils. Sometimes in the olive oil world (but I suppose in all fields, to tell the truth!) I notice an atmosphere of competition and a certain bitterness towards others who have been successful. That evening at the wine bar it was quite the opposite: each producer complimented the other on the quality of their oil.
Francesco Le Donne was behind the bar like an olive oil barman where he was offering his oil in little cups to taste or suggesting pairing it with a delicious buffalo mozzarella from Campania or slices of wild smoked salmon selected by Daniele De Rossi of Sapor Maris. The magic wrought by his Itrana with its typical sensations of tomato was beautifully demonstrated. But that evening, seeing that there was also porchetta on the menu we decide to try both the Marche and Puglia oils on it to see what different effects they might have on such a hearty dish.
I was a bit worried that each producer would come out with the “hey, just see how my oil transforms this dish into something sublime!” without bothering to even consider what effect their “competitor’s” oil might have had. But as I got to know these people during the evening I realised that they were the kind of people who would never have such an attitude. It was great: the producer from the Marche, Mattia Marcantoni, said: “isn’t it interesting how the oil from Puglia brings out the flavour of the pork?” while Vito Girone from Puglia remarked how: “Mattia’s oil added intense notes of aromatic herbs even in a dish as flavourful as porchetta!”
I don’t want to overstate this but there was a strong desire to taste each others’ oils not just in cups but in the context of pairing with different dishes. There was a sincere wish to experiment (which I feel is very important) and to talk in a very constructive way about each others’ respective experiences accepting, or rather celebrating, the positive qualities of other producers’ oils.
I have known Francesco Le Donne for a few years now and often we meet at events where we can taste many different oils. We go round like a couple of dogs sniffing out the better oils which, at times, can come from all over Italy and even further afield. Francesco always wants to learn from others. He really appreciates good oils made by his ‘competitors’ and is always ready to learn from and be inspired by those he considers worthy of esteem. I had never met Mattia Marcantonio and Vito Girone before and I must say it was a real pleasure to discover such generous souls.
Over the years I have spent tasting olive oils I have realised that the best producers are those who are interested in tasting other peoples’ oils so as to enrich their experience of olive oils and to learn at the same time. The person who claims that their oil is the best will never go anywhere.
My approach may seem naïve and romantic but the evening spent at Buccone confirmed in a simple and clear way something that I feel deeply: good olive oil producers are not motivated by maniacal and paranoid notions of competition and neither are they obsessed with money. If that were the case instead of producing olive oil they would have to find a more profitable activity.
At the end of the evening I spoke to one of the owners of the wine bar: Paolo Trimani. It was wonderful to hear how enthusiastic he is about these oils which I call modern olive oils and also to hear how curious he is to taste other oils so as to be able to offer excellence on the shelves of his wine bar. It seems to me to be the beginning of a new and extremely positive tendency: slowly slowly these oils are beginning to be bought not just by foreign clients (often more likely to spend a bit more for quality) but also by Italians who can find a huge selection of olive oils in the market at dirt cheap prices. The fact that high quality olive oils are sold in the context of important wines has allowed Paolo to get his clients to understand these oils better. I feel that these are ideal conditions for promoting olive oils that are just as ‘important’.