Both a terrifying window onto the effects of globalization of the food industry in an age of lax regulation, and an eye-opening call to action, EXTRA VIRGINITY proves that becoming more educated about quality extra virgin olive oil can be one of life’s singular pleasures.
This is such an astonishing book. It’s amazing how Tom Mueller’s portrayal of how increased public demand for olive oil has created a crises for traditional producers of high quality olive oil parallel’s how the success of the CSA model as a source of fresh, chemical and GMO-free produce in the DC-area has attracted a raft of purveyors of lower quality produce resellers who are so successful in their charade that they are putting quality local producers out of business. It’s a rule of the market: when a product is bringing a good price and has attracted a strong following, imitators move in to offer lower quality or, in many cases, outright counterfeit goods, at the same price, driving out The Good. Only caveat emptor can save us now. This book is full of profound caveat.
My favorite section of this book is where Mr Mueller talks about the phytonutrients of olive oil and how these rare but very easy to assimilate nutrients are the true ‘health secrets’ of the Mediterranean diet (ie it’s nutrients in high quality traditional olive oil, the kind that’s used every day in countries like Italy, and not “olive oil” itself which promote human health), but those nutrients simply are not present in low quality diluted and polluted USA commercial olive oils. Let me repeat that: if you are using low quality olive oil, it probably contains zero of the health promoting phytonutrients that make olive oil a wise choice from a health perspective. The same is true in organic produce, of course. We are now learning that many of the health promoting and anti-cancer nutrients in plants are only present in plants that have been growing in highly mineralized biologically active soils. WIthout the precursors to the phytonutrients, which are only available to the plants in these artesianal soils, a plant never develops any of these beneficial substances! (Plants produce these phytonutrients for their own protection. This is why plants in Nature seldom need pesticides and plants in corporate agricultural fields need pesticides continuously.)
I’m going to be interviewing Tom Mueller this Saturday afternoon for my Biodynamics Now! podcast. The podcast will be published at www.bdnow.org in a couple of weeks. I’m inviting you, if you have any questions about olive oil for Tom Mueller, to ask those questions at www.bdnow.org (under the ‘podcast’ menu button.) Post your question(s) there by noon on Saturday and I’ll try to present them to Tom in the interview. -Farmer Allan
EXTRA VIRGINITY – THE SUBLIME AND SCANDALOUS WORLD OF OLIVE OIL
By Tom Mueller
Praise for Extra Virginity
“How long have readers been waiting for a book like this? A century? A millennium?
Finally, the earth’s most poetic food has found its storyteller. Essential, smart, and ridiculously overdue.” Bill Bruford, Best Selling Author of “Heat”
“Mueller builds a convincing case for olive oil as one of the most miraculous and versatile substances in all of nature … Passionately written yet clear-headed.” USA Today
“Extra Virginity promises a journey into the ‘sublime and scandalous world of olive oil’ and delivers on that promise. Readers of this book will never again look at olive oil in the same way.” New York Journal of Books
“Mueller reveals the brazen fraud in the olive oil industry and teaches readers how to sniff out the good stuff.” New York Times
“The most delicious crime world exposé you can hope to read this month — or probably ever.” Flavorpill
“Extra Virginity” may make you reconsider the extra you’re paying for ‘extra.’” Wall Street Journal
“Mueller’s subject matter is so rich (if low in saturated fats)…” Business Week
“The New Yorker writer does for his subject what Susan Orlean did for orchids.” Columbus Dispatch
“A sparkling, stylish, sharply observed narrative that entertains and educates.” Dallas Morning News
FROM THE KIRKUS REVIEW:
Expanding on his New Yorker article exposing fraud in the olive oil industry, Mueller considers the trade’s past, present, and future.
The author opens with an olive oil tasting, where experts identify the flavors and fragrances that distinguish high-quality oil from lampante, which can legally be sold only for fuel—except that lax enforcement by the EU has led to an epidemic of oil labeled extra virgin and/or “100 percent Italian” when in fact it is a blend of cheaper oils from other countries. In addition to the slippery (but often surprisingly engaging) rascals whose shenanigans Mueller investigated in the original article, the author visits conscientious cultivators striving to elevate standards with a combination of time-honored techniques and cutting-edge technology. Among them are the De Carlos in Puglia, historic center of Italian olive oil production; the Vaño family in Jaén, trying to improve the generally low quality of Spanish oil; and Gordon Smyth of the New Norcia monastery near Perth, innovative preserver of a tradition established by the Spanish monks who brought olive trees to Australia in 1846. Mueller consults with chemists and government officials on two continents to examine why extra virgin olive oil is so healthful and why attempts to control its adulteration have been so ineffectual. (Short answer: corruption in Italy; indifferent FDA in America.) He intersperses aromatic vignettes from the history of olive oil, which in centuries past adorned the bodies of Greek athletes, burned in lamps in Christian churches, served as a folk remedy for a plethora of ailments and set the civilized Romans apart from those barbarians who favored meat, beer and animal fat over bread, wine and oil. So, “[a]re we witnessing a renaissance in oil, or the death of an industry?” The answer is still uncertain, but lovers of fine food and fine prose will relish Mueller’s exploration of the storied byways and modern sanctuaries of the olive, related with supple elegance.
Engrossing history, vivid contemporary reporting and a cogent call to action, expertly blended in an illuminating text.
“Destined to be a classic in the food lit canon, Extra Virginity is a fabulous work of historical research and reporting–and a page turner as well. Mueller takes us on a fascinating journey from the sacred to the corrupt. It’s a read I couldn’t resist.”
–Laura Schenone, James Beard winning author of A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove
“Extra Virginity is a fascinating book and a timely one too, as olive oil undergoes changes in classifications, as more of it is being madearound the world, and as millions more have come to choose it over other fats. Tom Mueller masterfully separates strands of information— and misinformation— about a subject that is complex and often dark but also one that illuminated with stories that reflect the dedication, heart and know-how to produce that oil that is truly a scared substance.”
–Deborah Madison, winner of 3 James Beard awards and author of 20 cookbooks, most recently Local Flavors and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
From the publisher: about EXTRA VIRGINITY
America is the third-largest olive oil consumer in the world, but that familiar glass bottle that’s a staple of so many U.S. pantries holds a shocking secret.
Odds are that most, if not all, of the oils marked “extra virgin” in your local supermarket are imposters, harlots masquerading in virgins’ clothing.
As a consequence, consumers are robbed of the health benefits associated with high-quality, antioxidant-rich real extra virgin olive oil, which is the active ingredient of the Mediterranean diet, and exhibits remarkable therapeutic properties against conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.
How do we differentiate between the authentic and the phony? And how could this kind of food fraud become so rampant?
Offering a revelatory look at the rich, fascinating, and often contradictory world of olive oil production and consumption, Tom Mueller investigates the enigmatic substance and the billion dollar global industry that produces it in EXTRA VIRGINITY: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil [W. W. Norton & Company; December 5, 2011; $25.95 hardcover].
A timely, masterfully executed exploration, mingling history, science, and exposé, that expands on Mueller’s lauded August 2007 New Yorker article, “Letter from Italy: Slippery Business,” this book is a riveting portrait of the traditions, politics, geography, current affairs, key figures, and culinary movements that shape today’s olive oil industry. Mueller introduces honest artisan producers, from Australia to Italy to California, who create magnificent oils but struggle to make ends meet in a market awash with fraud; criminals making millions off fraudulent oils; the contemporary scientists investigating oil’s diverse chemical properties and health benefits; and a fascinating cast of chefs, food activists, bureaucrats, and priests, all of whom are obsessed with olive oil.
Among myriad eye-opening stories, EXTRA VIRGINITY reveals that records of inspections against fraudulent practice in the olive oil trade date back to as early as the twenty-fourth century BC. The enduring presence of trickery in olive oil production attests to this commodity’s extraordinary importance to humanity.
Throughout history, olive oil has been used not just as a foodstuff but also in religious rituals, cosmetics and perfumes, aphrodisiacs and sexual aids; and as fuel, balm, and spiritual essence, celebrated by the likes of Sophocles and Martial, Jesus and Muhammad.
Along with its countless applications, olive oil also has a rigorous quality standard. It is the only product for which a taste test is actually part of the legal definition of authenticity and quality. Mueller takes the reader to a modern laboratory, where a trained team olive oil tasters slurp away, looking for official taste flaws, such as musty, fusty, rancid, and grubby, and describing positive attributes of well-crafted oils, such as artichoke, fresh-cut grass, green tomato, or kiwi.
Yet despite the rigor and meticulousness of this rating system, there is still no assurance that the sticker on any given bottle of olive oil reflects the content. In fact, as Mueller shows, fake oil is just the glistening tip of a vast iceberg of food fraud. The enormous popularity of the “Made in Italy” label worldwide makes it an appetizing target for food fraudsters, who earn an estimated $80 billion a year selling counterfeit or adulterated faux-Italian foods.
Since price competition in the food industry is fierce, companies are often willing to buy their raw materials from dubious sources, even at prices so low they suggest that the foods are fake. Added to this are the challenges inherent in testing and policing a massive, far-flung, internationalized food and agriculture sector rife with companies whose chemical knowledge and expertise far outstrip those of the investigators. In a market such as this, the honest olive oil producer faces almost insurmountable challenges. According to Mueller, unless something is done within the next few years to halt olive oil crime, the ancient and storied tradition of olive oil manufacturing will come to an end.
Luckily, awareness is spreading and a revolution is afoot in olive oil quality, particularly in the New World, where skilled artisanal growers and oil competitions abound. For readers interested in joining the movement, EXTRA VIRGINITY offers a wealth of resources, including:
- A glossary of olive oil terminology
- Advice on choosing a quality oil
- Tips on which oil types to pair with different foods
- An extensive list of Web sites for further information
ExtraVirginity.com is the go-to place on the web for olive oil news and a regularly-updated guide to the best oils from each year’s harvest.
You can read Tom Mueller’s original Letter from Italy: Slippery Business: The trade in adulterated olive oil in the August 17, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, which was the kernel this book was built around here
About TOM MUELLER:
Tom Mueller writes for The New Yorker and other publications. He lives in a medieval stone farmhouse surrounded by olive groves in the Ligurian countryside outside of Genoa, Italy.