Appreciating Olive Oil

To begin the tour, we tasted these three oils plus one more.

Immediately after we arrived in Casperia, our innkeeper lead us down and up a few steps to a wine bar for an olive oil tour with Johnny Madge, an Englishman who has lived in Italy since 1982. I’d never been on an olive oil tour and had no idea what to expect. We got to the wine bar a bit late, and Johnny began the tour the instant that we took our seats.

Johnny lectured throughout the hour or so of the tasting, so we learned a lot about olives, local and worldwide production of olive oil, laws and groups regulating the production and labeling of olive oil, and so forth. He poured us small plastic glasses of four local olive oils of widely differing colors (one was brilliant emerald—gorgeous!) and flavors. We could put it on bread or drink it, which he believes is the best way to taste it. First you warm the oil by closing your fist around the glass. To seal in the aroma, you then place your other palm over the top and rub it back and forth. When the olive oil is warm and aromatic, you quickly smell it and then pour it in your mouth, holding it there while you slightly open your mouth and force air in and out to aerate it. Then you swallow it. Johnny says the aroma and the flavor of the olive oil should be consistent, not jarring. The main olive varieties found in Sabina oils are Frantoio, Leccino, and Carboncella, and most Sabine olive oils are a mixture of the types.

While we tasted the oil, Johnny poured some wine—red for most people. That became essential at one point when one young olive oil had such a strong flavor that after a cough or two, most of us grabbed our glasses to put out the peppery fire!

Ancient olive tree – note the wispy trunk!

At the end of the tasting, Johnny selected three more olive oils and several bottles of wine to take to lunch. We piled into his nine-seater van and drove through endless olive groves, large and small, to an old olive orchard. Some of the trees there were several hundred years old and barely had trunks. I don’t know how they stood up, let alone made olives, but many were covered with fruit.

In Sabina most olives are picked by hand because the terrain is so hilly. That was also the case in Sorrento and Amalfi, where the trunks of the olive trees were lined with green plastic netting to catch any olives that fall off the tree. You’d never see one of those puppies again if it started rolling down those hills. We didn’t see olive picking in either Sabina or Sorrento, but apparently olive pickers have a sort of paddle that they swat at the trees to dislodge the olives, which are then caught in baskets or tarps.

One of the best polentas I’ve ever eaten

We then had lunch at OrtoBio (see my previous blog post). Johnny began the lunch with a tasting of three more olive oils and served some of the wine that he brought. The amazing lunch lasted a couple of hours, and I was pretty sleepy by the end, so I napped in the car on the way to a tour of an olive oil press.

A new batch of olives waiting to be pressed

We arrived at the press at around 5, and a steady stream of  farmers kept bringing their olive crops to be pressed— large crops and small; in trucks, in the trunks of cars, in all sorts of vehicles. At this time of year, when most of the harvesting is done, the press operates 24-7. I’ll let the pictures below show you the pressing process, which was fascinating. At the end we each had a glass of just pressed olive oil, which was pungent and a bit raw but still quite tasty.

Johnny’s not much of a fan of supermarket olive oils, so if you want the best, you should shop at a specialty store. The most expensive oil in his store was 15€ (about $20), so be prepared to pony up for a good bottle of olive oil. It’s worth it!


P.S., This post is for Jennilynn Howe Parks, who told me several weeks ago that she’d like to know more about olive oil, and Nancy Lovegrove, who loves olive oil more than life itself. Saluti to you both!

Olives are stemmed and pitted and then washed (above)