Foodie Underground: The Scandalous and Sublime World of Olive Oil

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ColumnIs that oil extra virgin or a whore?

“There’s a book you have to read.”

My father was calling me, and with two very well read parents I take their recommendations seriously.

“It’s called Extra Virginity.”

I tried not laugh into the phone. I held it together. “Um, ok…”

“It’s about olive oil.”

Of course.

It’s not everyday your parents tell you to reach for a book with the title Extra Virginity, but given that it was all about olive oil and the olive oil industry, I figured it was worth a try.

There are many food products that we spend a lot of time thinking and about. Wine and cheese immediately come to mind. But olive oil is not really one of them. Despite a tradition as rich, if not more, as wine making, olive oil has gotten the short end of the stick in our specialty foods obsession.

Something you put on salad. Something you drizzle on pasta. If you’re really up on the times, maybe you even bake with it. But as with many products, there is more to olive oil than meets the eye. Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller takes us on an in depth exploration of the world of olive oil, reminding us that the world of craft production and quality goods isn’t always what it seems.

In a day and age where we’re over saturated with words like “local” and “artisan” it’s hard to know what to purchase anymore, and when stores begin touting cold-pressed, extra virgin bottles of green oil, do we really know what we’re buying? We would like to think that we do, but as is clear in Extra Virginity is that things aren’t that simple.

I remember one of my favorite excerpts:

Zaramella laughed his gruff laugh. “I brought the supermarket oil last,” he said, “because it would have ruined your palate for the good ones, as surely as if you’d gargled with cat piss.”

… He pointed the neck of the bottle at me like a gun, then he lifted his glasses to read the label. “It says what every olive oil says: 100 percent Italian, cold-pressed, stone-ground, extra virgin…”

He shook his head, as if unable to believe his eyes. “Extra virgin? What’s this oil got to do with virginity? This is a whore.”

On a quest for olive oils that had more positive connotations, I caught up with Mueller to learn about olive oil, why he wrote the book and tips for choosing good olive oil.

AB: Why olive oil? What inspired you to write this book?

TM: Like so many things in life, olive oil happened to me almost by accident. I’d been living in Italy for over 10 years, surrounded by olive trees, when I had a conversation with my editor at the New Yorker about what I’d write about next. Among the topics we kicked around, olive oil seemed like it had the most promise – a “tasty” assignment, easy and quick. Six years later, I’m still digging, still learning, still being amazed almost daily at the beauty and murk of this storied substance.

AB: In the rise of the artisan craft food movement, do you think that olive oil is getting the attention it deserves?

TM: Yes and no. On the one hand, olive oil has recently seeped into the consciousness of a number of food opinion leaders, chefs, commentators. Consumption is rising swiftly, quality olive oil shops are springing up nationwide. BUT, there’s zero government control of olive oil quality (the FDA has openly abdicated its legal role), and ignorance of what quality olive oil means is still rampant. Lots of bad oil, sometimes adulterated, is being sold as ” extra virgin olive oil” throughout America.

AB: What would be your top three recommendations for picking good olive oil?

TM: 1) Harvest date: must be fresh (within the current harvest year).
2) Who made this, and where? Specific producer and specific location of trees as well as oil-bottling.
3) Mention of specific cultivars (though by no means a guarantee of quality, I’ve found mention of specific olive varieties on the label tends to indicate a more professional/serious oil-maker.

AB: What is the one benefit of olive oil that you discovered while writing the book that surprised you the most?

TM: It’s MAGIC at curing diaper rash: fixed up my baby girl’s cardinal red butt in 1 application!

AB: Do you know of any other industry that is as “scandalous” (in terms of fraud, etc) as olive oil?

TM: The news is full of stories of cheating, in honey, fish, milk, saffron, etc. For me, 1 of the things that makes olive oil fraud so scandalous is that people specifically choose olive oil for health reasons, and yet, if they get an adulterated or low-grade product, they’re being cheated of those. Fact is, though, that olive oil is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg of food fraud: the questions I’m asking about olive oil provenance, authenticity, standards, testing, should be asked about nearly every food in our supermarkets.

AB: How much olive oil do you use yourself on an average day?

TM: An alarming amount. You should see me dress a salad! I can say that our family goes through 1.5 liters of olive oil per week.

AB: Favorite dish with olive oil? 

TM: One of the most delicious and surprising: drizzle a bitter, pungent, dark green olive oil on top of a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Remarkable counterpoint of sweet, bitter & pungent – raises the ice cream to a new power!

This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.

Image: Truth in Olive Oil

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