It’s everywhere. In recipes, on supermarket shelves, in restaurants — everywhere you turn you encounter extra virgin olive oil. In fact, you virtually never see any kind of olive oil except extra virgin. What seems even better, it’s cheaper than ever. You can now get a big bottle of EVOO (as it is known to its friends) for less than $10.
All this is not necessarily cause to celebrate, as Tom Mueller makes clear in this fascinating book, which somehow manages to be magisterial in a very compact space. The oil you buy with the extra virgin label may very well be the high-quality oil produced solely by mechanical means from fresh olives that it is supposed to be. But in an industry in which standards are vague and enforcement is lax, it may well not be.
In fact, Mueller concludes, extra virgin olive oil you buy in the supermarket has a good chance of being cut with refined olive oil (produced with solvents and/or heat and chemically “deodorized” to remove defects) or even with seed oils produced by these same chemical methods.
Mueller, a writer for The New Yorker and other publications, in effect tells us that we have to spell “caveat emptor” in capital letters when it comes to buying olive oil.
First of all, ignore the “extra virgin” in the label — it has become ubiquitous and so lost any meaning. Second, forget everything you ever heard about “first pressed” or “cold pressed.” These terms have become obsolete as most producers have switched from presses to centrifugal means of production.
The only sure-fire way of knowing whether the oil is truly extra virgin is to taste it. But here comes the biggest surprise of all — you are looking for tastes that may seem counterintuitive to your idea of what makes a great olive oil.
The truly good, high-quality extra virgin oil should taste bitter — this signifies a high level of antioxidants, one of the qualities that make olive oil so healthful. The other two taste characteristics of premium oil are “pungency,” indicated by a peppery taste, and fruitiness. (By the way, don’t look to the color of the oil as an indication of fruitiness; at tastings, the oil is often in tinted containers so participants don’t even see the color.)
Many of us may have found bitterness and pungency off-putting in an oil and preferred a milder, blander, if still fruity, version. In fact, one purveyor of supermarket oil advertised its product with these qualities, implying they were the signs of truly fine oil. Not so, our author tells us, and there is every chance that these milder oils are not pure extra virgin.
Extra Virginity is a passionate book. Mueller, who lives in Italy outside Genoa, preaches the gospel of olive oil with the zeal of a convert. He interviews some of the leading figures in the olive oil industry, whose own enthusiasm is infectious. The author’s blend of historical tales and reporting on contemporary innovators in oil production and marketing makes for a heady blend of oil euphoria.
Mueller sees hopeful signs as well as clouds on the horizon. New producers are making finer oils than ever and consumers from Italy to California are developing new appreciation for high-quality oil. But massive fraud in production of substandard oils that do not merit the “extra virgin” moniker are driving down prices and forcing producers of true extra virgin oil out of business.
“Are we witnessing a renaissance in olive oil, or the death of an industry?” the author asks. “Will extra virgin olive oil become the next premium food phenomenon … or will it sink into the anonymous mass of fat that is the legacy of our post-industrial food supply?”
As a reporter, Mueller does not answer that question, which is anything but rhetorical. Despite the advent of oil bars, the growth of New World production in California and Australia, and the effort of traditional producers in Italy and Spain to adopt innovations and maintain premium quality, the battle for good oil is far from won.
In the end, Mueller suggests, it is the consumer who will supply the answer. Only if consumers are educated as to what constitutes good oil and are willing to pay premium prices for a premium product will non-fraudulent producers be able to stay in business.
The author provides a “buying guide” as an appendix, but don’t expect a list of labels you can go out and look for. Rather, he says, the best way to buy is at a place where you can taste the oil and learn where, how and most important, when it was made, because olive oil deteriorates rapidly in quality with age.
Mueller also advises that it is better to buy a bulk oil that has been kept in proper conditions, or failing that, oil in dark bottles (light hurts quality) that has the harvest date, not an expiration date, on the label. The author provides numerous sources of research and information where a devoted consumer can keep up with where and how to find good oil. He also has a website, www.extravirginity.com, though for some reason, this was still largely under construction when the book was published in December.
This may require more commitment than many people are willing to make. But for anyone who has developed a taste for the fabulous Mediterranean cuisines, or who loves cooking these flavorful and healthful dishes, or, indeed, anyone who reads this book, with its passion for the history and benefits of genuine extra virgin olive oil, the choice to help support that renaissance will be easy.
Darrell Delamaide, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, took courses at Cordon Bleu and other cooking schools when he was stationed in Paris. He is the author most recently of The Grand Mirage, a historical thriller.