Italian olive oil is a staple in the Mediterranean diet and you won’t find an Italian kitchen without stock of this liquid gold. But how do you find quality organic olive oil in Italy? Get some insider tips for cooking with olive oil!

Johnny Madge is the only English-speaking Olive Expert for the Slow Food Extra-Virgin Guide in Italy. Johnny runs Italian Olive Oil Tours in the medieval village of Casperia outside of Rome.

Note: This interview was originally posted in 2012 and updated for accuracy in September 2020. 

Our olive oil expert, Johnny Madge


Here’s what he shared with us about Italian Olive Oil:

What is the biggest mistake people make in choosing an Italian Olive Oil?

Buying anything under €5 is a mistake. Because this means the olive oil has definitely been mixed in with old oil. By “old oil” I mean that it has been refined and there are no health qualities in oil like that.

Can you take us through the different labels of Olive Oil?

Extra-Virgin means that acidity is under 0.8%. When olive oil is acidic it just tastes bad because the olives have fermented.

Virgin has a much higher acidity. Extra-virgin is so cheap now, so I would absolutely stay away from Virgin olive oil!

Pomace Oil (Sansa in Italian) is produced using hexane or solvents and believe me when I tell you it is really, really, really bad stuff!

What you want to look for is the date when the oil was made not the sell-by date. A good organic olive oil has to be from the last season if it is any older than that it is crap! Olive oils decline in quality as soon as they’re made, therefore you better consume them as fresh as possible. Some Italian olive oil producers will also put on the label the amount of time between harvesting the olives and pressing them. This is another key indicator because once picked the sooner olives are pressed, the better the juice. So if it says pressed 6 hours after harvest, yes you are in business!

Light Oil is to be avoided at all costs! It doesn’t mean that it’s less fattening, it just means it has a lighter flavour because the olives are old and have lost their taste. Forget it!

What should I look out for when tasting olive oil?

What you need to look out for when tasting good organic olive oil is the smell. If it has no smell than basically, it’s pure garbage. Most of the Italian olive oils you buy in the supermarket has been deodorised and so it takes out the smell along with all the good qualities.

Also, look for the colour! if it has any kind of orange tinge that means it’s gone bad.

Olive oil – pure liquid gold!

What are your top tips for cooking with it?

Don’t ever let the olive oil smoke so make sure to keep the temperature down. You can even use Italian olive oil to make Japanese tempura! Only make sure the oil doesn’t smoke.

Always remember: good olive oil transforms something simple into something else, something more flavourful, something better. Olive oil has a remarkable ability to multiply the flavour of whatever it is applied to or with what it is cooked.

And please do yourself a favour and use extra-virgin olive oil to cook with. Extra-virgin olive oil these days costs about the same as motor oil. The difference is that you put the olive oil in your body so it is absolutely worth spending a little extra to make sure it’s extra-virgin—your body will thank you for it!

One thing I’ll bet you didn’t know…

The peppery and grassy flavour of olive oil is not a defect, it is actually an indicator that the oil is high quality. What you’re tasting is the anti-oxidants that are really good for you.

Did you enjoy these olive oil tips? Do you have a favourite Italian olive oil or any other olive oil tips to share? Sound off in the comments.

With 2 of The Top 10 Food Experiences in the World, according to TripAdvisor, Eating Europe Food Tours offers a Rome walking food tour through one of Rome’s oldest and characteristic neighbourhoods. On this tour, you’ll taste some of the highest quality Italian Olive Oils!

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