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Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil

Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York, NY; 2012. Hardcover, 256 pages. ISBN: 978-0393070217. $25.95.

On August 13, 2007, an article in The New Yorker exposed the olive oil industry as one of the most corrupt on the face of the earth. Titled “Slippery Business,” the story by reporter Tom Mueller unmasked an industry awash in adulterated oil in an overt fraud perpetrated on unsuspecting and unknowledgeable consumers who had come to rely on the consumption of olive oil for their health. The Italian city of Lucca is described as something like an olive oil chop shop, where tanks of substandard oil gush in from Turkey, Tunisia, and Spain to be blended into a lie called “extra virgin olive oil.”

Mueller, who lives in Italy, now has expanded on that article with his book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. The title seems to mock the absurdity of a state of being extra virgin, as if being virgin isn’t pristine enough.

If you have plans today to drizzle a salad with some of the contents of a bottle of olive oil labeled “extra virgin,” read this book first. It will make you angry and put you on guard the next time you see a huge bottle of olive oil labeled “extra virgin” and priced less than $10. By the time Mueller is finished, you’ll know that “first pressed” and “cold pressed” are marketing terms. You’ll learn to look for lot numbers, which of the world’s producers are reliably honest, and which ones are not. You’ll also be distressed to learn that olive oil fraud has been going on for a long time, with unscrupulous defrauders winking their way to riches.

The term “extra virgin” is the top of the line for olive oil. That label denotes an oil without defects. Mueller interviewed professional tasters to discover the defects named in European Union law. There are 16: fusty, mustiness/humidity, muddy sediment, winey/vinegary, metallic, rancid, heated or burned, hay/wood, rough, greasy, vegetable water, brine, esparto (grassy), earthy, grubby, and horrors — the detection of the taste of cucumber. The average consumer, however, might have difficulty distinguishing fusty from musty.

Mueller went to several tastings and describes in almost comical detail the development of his own palate in his transition from investigative reporter to foodie. The most pungent oils can make even the best of tasters choke and cough. Mueller sympathizes with readers who may not realize that an olive oil has, in fact, been cut with seed oil such as hazelnut or sunflower oil, refined to mask defects, made from pomace dregs (the remaining material after olives are pressed to release oil), or is just plain rancid. In that case, the oil may not be salubrious. The aforementioned defects ruin beneficial polyphenol levels and degrade the oil’s freshness.

Mueller’s writing is exceptional, particularly when explaining the properties of olive oil that most of us seek. He gently unfurls the chemistry of great olive oil. He guides us through the science of oleic acid and polyphenols, which are responsible for olive oil’s beneficial antioxidant properties. But the book is not just reporting. Woven throughout are Mueller’s stories about life in Italy, his warm interviews with older olive oil producers who still use grinding stones pulled by beasts of burden. He traces the history of olive oil back to antiquity, its symbolism in several religions, and describes how olive oil remains the basis of countless regional Mediterranean cuisines. Photo segments show a plate of 15 olive cultivars, from green to black (there are more than 700); super high-density groves in California and Portugal, and a 2,000-year-old olive tree. For extra help, Mueller has added a glossary of olive oil terms that make reading this book educational as well as enjoyable.

For anyone who loves olive oil and vows never to be ripped off by the sinister side of the olive oil business, this book is a must-read. Without it, my guess is that a good deal of the olive oil in your cupboard at this moment might as well be used as lamp oil.

—Elaine Corn Contributing Reporter Capital Public Radio Sacramento, CA