47 Ronin Reviewed

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This week, after watching the 2013 film, 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves, I had to wonder why Hollywood felt it necessary to take a powerful story, a great historical drama, and mess with it. And, of course, why they would put Keanu Reeves into a film about 18th century Japanese samurai. Or, for that matter, into any film.

I’m not an actor, so my appreciation of their talents is only as an outsider. But Reeves seems to be pretty much a one-dimensional character. It worked in the Matrix, albeit less so in the sequels, but in films like the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, he was awful. (the 1951 original remains so much better…). His breadth of emotional expression seems very limited: his face always shows an angry bewilderment.

Perhaps that flatness was thought well-suited to the stoicism expected of samurai culture. And in part it does work in the scenes of fighting and warrior bonding, but then there’s the whole love scene thing and he just doesn’t come across as the romantic lead when required.

Reeves plays a half-breed, a role not fully explained (why did the director, Carl Rinsch require a Western lead in a story that is purely Japanese?). Nor is the whole isolated-Japan-no-contact political situation fleshed out (which didn’t really alter until the Meijin era, almost two centuries later), which might explain somewhat better why Reeve’s character was shunned by the samurai (and that whole sold-into-slavery gladiator thing was a very odd inclusion, especially since slavery was banned in Japan in 1590).

The film didn’t score well at Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB. It scores much lower than the black-and-white 1941 film of the same name by Kurosawa.

But to be fair, what critics like and what the public likes are often at odds with one another. And personally, I am often entertained by films that critics panned. And 47 Ronin entertained me, despite my reservations about Reeves and the Hollywood accouterments. It’s a fun film, but it could have been a great film.

Hollywood hasn’t learned that colour, action and special effects can’t make up for good storytelling, solid acting, well-written dialogue and effective directing.

This film has some of that – aside from Reeves, the acting is good, albeit straight-jacketed by the emotionally restrained period. Just not quite enough to make it a great film. The story is confused; context isn’t clear and it seems to dart around without purpose at times. The special effects detracted me (as they often do in Hollywood films) from the story.

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Jack Finney’s Time and Again

Invasion of the Body SnatchersEver read Jack Finney? I knew the name, but I never read any of his books. I knew he was the author of the 1955 pulp novel, The Body Snatchers.  This became the basis for the 1956 movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That is one of my all-time favourite B-films, one I can watch almost endlessly. I like it even more than the 1978 re-make. I have both (of course), and even have have the subsequent – and less impressive – remakes: Body Snatchers (1993) and The Invasion (2007). Plus a few of the below-B spinoffs like Invasion of the Pod People.

But I never got around to reading Finney’s original. Not sure why, since I’ve read in the past and still read a lot of the pulp sci-fi/fantasy novels of the 1930s-60s.

A couple of years ago, I came across an unabridged audiobook of Finney’s Body Snatchers on sale at a nearby Chapters store. I often listen to audiobooks when I travel outside town and thought this would be amusing. Instead, I was impressed by how good it was, how well written. Well above the usual pulp standards. This was the work of an accomplished, talented writer.

And I was pleasantly surprised to find I liked the audiobook better than the movie. A lot more. That’s some accomplishment. Sure, I usually prefer like books to their movies, but seldom do pulps scale the heights above their B-flicks this way.

I liked it so much, I played it for Susan – who doesn’t like the movies or the scary genres – and she agreed: it is very well written. Not scary as much as dramatic. Finney has a remarkable eye for detail.

Yesterday, on my trip to the city, I started to listen to it for a third time. It struck me again as such a well-crafted novel I decided to stop at the Chapters on the way home and see if they had a copy so I could read it. Of course, they didn’t (Chapters, I think, has gone steadily downhill as a bookstore since they decided to add geegaws and lifestyle tchotchkes to their stock at the expense of space for books…). But that store had another of his novels: Time and Again (1970). Which I bought.

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Julius Caesar: Best of the Bard?

Julius CaesarFor my money, Julius Caesar is simply Billy Shakespeare’s best ever play. I mean, what’s not to like in it? It has some stonking great speeches in it – including one of his top five ever (Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen….”) as well as a passel of memorable lines you can quote at parties (Who among my readers hasn’t passed off a quick “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war…” just for effect?).

Plus it has a conspiracy, a murder, a riot, a battle, and a couple of suicides to gussy up the action. Treachery, betrayal, loyalty, raw ambition, backstabbing, front-stabbing, ghosts… really: what’s not to like?

It’s short and brisk, so it can be read in an evening and the plot followed easily enough, even by a non-academic. It’s bereft of the knotty love-action that makes you scratch your head and wonder which twin is onstage and why. WS eschewed his usual love for complicated metaphors, and hidden meanings when writing it, so almost anyone can understand it.

And on top of that, it’s all about politics and Billy the Bard was in his best game when writing about politics. Like I said, what’s not to like?

And then there’s the whole mess of subtext about manliness and masculinity, about friendship and loyalty, about power, about the conflict between reason and passion, about the nature of the state and the greater good, and whether it’s okay to kill someone for a Big Reason like saving the republic.

Like every other Shakespearean play, it’s about the complexity of being human and interacting with other conflicted humans. The issues, the insights, the internal tug-of-war over ethics and morals, the passions and lusts – they were the same in his day as they are in ours, and he makes them accessible by weaving them into great stories. That’s why the Bard is still so relevant today.

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Poems That Make You Cry

Poems That Make Grown Men CryI cannot read Dylan Thomas’ poem,Do not go gentle into that good night‘ without a lump in my throat. I read it at my father’s funeral, several years ago, so for me it has a personal context that retains its emotional impact. Many poems move me or touch my heartstrings, however, that have no such personal context, although I cannot recall the last time one moved me to tears.

When I got Anthony and Ben Holden’s book, “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them,” I expected to be deeply and powerfully moved by the poems in it. Yet for the most part, I wasn’t. I read through it, then put the book down. I thought, perhaps it was my mood at the time. This week I re-read it. The result was the same: much of the poetry had little or no emotional effect for me.

Most of it, I thought, was very good poetry: skillfully written, beautifully crafted, stuff that made me pause and think. But not cry. In fact, most of it elicited an intellectual rather than an emotional reaction. That isn’t a bad thing, just not what I expected from a book with that title. I want poetry to slip past my thinking brain and tweak the organs that send a chemical rush of emotions through me. I want to feel a poem raise the hairs on my arm or a lump in my throat before I start to analyse the words.

The Holdens begin each poem with a piece by the man (or in a few cases where more than one chose the same piece, men) who explains why he chose the particular poem. Then the chapter ends with a brief biography of the chooser(s), so the reader can frame his or her appreciation of the poem in some context. This really helps in some cases, but not all. (As for why just men: read their introduction).

For example, the Japanese hokku (a brief poem, later renamed as haiku) by Fukuda Chiyo-Ni and chose for the collection by Boris Akunin:

Dragonfly catcher
Where today
have you gone?

As Akunin writes, it seems either mysterious or banal, but once you learn that the author wrote it after she lost her little son, it becomes deeply poignant. You can read more of her work here.

But as David Orr wrote in his book, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, poetry – and books about poetry  – has a limited audience today:

…the potential audience for a book about poetry nowadays consists of two mutually uncomprehending factions: the poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day-to-day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it’s a subject of at best mild and confused interest.

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A Modern Take on Gorgias

GorgiasPlato’s dialogue Gorgias is mostly about the difference between content and form. Or rather it’s about how Socrates saw the difference between philosophy – content and truth – and rhetoric – form and words. Both of which are practiced and studied today in much different forms from what they were in ancient Greece. But the essential core of his argument is still there for us.

Socrates felt rhetoric  – oratory – was shallow; merely using words for persuasion, for effect, for emotion: it lacked the validity, the meaning and depth of philosophy. It lacked truth and knowledge.

If you look at the dichotomy in Gorgias as one between science, fact and evidence on one side, and pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and angry bloggers on the other, then it makes sense in a modern way. Instead of the speeches he discusses, imagine them like this: as blog posts. Gorgias argues his speeches are about freedom – angry bloggers often argue their posts are a right, and they have freedom to write whatever they please, to belittle and demean others without punishment. A modern Socrates might label these sophists “A” types.

What kind of change, then, does rhetoric effect in the soul? Socrates infers from Gorgias that it is persuasion. What kind of persuasion? One kind of persuasion “provides belief without knowing,” and another “provides knowledge.” Clearly knowledge is better than true belief, which is better than false belief, and more knowledge is better than less knowledge. But rhetoric merely imparts belief, Gorgias admits, and experience shows that rhetoric produces both true belief and false belief (454e). By this reasoning rhetoric, to the extent that it is a theoretic art, is powerless to effect the best possible change (knowledge) in the soul of the hearer, but it has the power to effect the worst possible change (false belief) in the hearer’s soul.

This may be the main reason that Socrates stops discussing the greatest of goods and begins to discuss the greatest of evils. It is important to protect one’s soul against the worst effects of rhetoric. Socrates refers to the greatest of evils, in slightly different formulations, over a dozen times. The subject matter of the greatest evil takes many forms, most notably that of injustice. Can the state of soul called false belief be reconciled with the state of soul called injustice?

One could easily apply Socrates’ views about content versus empty form to the local political scene: the debate between financial facts, facility facts and council accomplishments versus the fictions, fantasies and outright lies presented in attack ads, on social media and angry blog posts. Wikipedia tells us:

Socrates believes there are two types: “…one part of it would be flattery, I suppose, and shameful public harangue, while the other—that of getting the souls of the citizens to be as good as possible and of striving valiantly to say what is best, whether the audience will find it more pleasant or more unpleasant—is something admirable. But you’ve never seen this type of oratory…” (502e). Although rhetoric has the potential to be used justly, Socrates believes that in practice, rhetoric is flattery; the rhetorician makes the audience feel worthy because they can identify with the rhetorician’s argument.

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Crito: Doing What’s Right

Collected DialoguesIn his dialogue, Crito, Plato has Socrates gently admonish his friend, Crito, for his concern over what the uneducated public might think, or might spread by rumour and gossip, and encourages him instead to focus his attention on those ‘reasonable people’ who know the facts and in doing what is right:

“Why, my dear Crito, should we pay so much attention to what ‘most people’ think? The really reasonable people, who have much more claim to be considered, will believe that the facts are exactly as they are.”
(Trans. Hugh Tedennick, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Bollingen Series LXXI, Princeton University Press, 14th printing, 1989)*

Had this been written today, Socrates might tell his friend not to be concerned with the chatter on social media; look to informed people rather than simply those posting on Facebook and Twitter.

Crito, however, replies with a caution:

“…one has to think of popular opinion as well. Your present position is quite enough to show that the capacity of ordinary people for causing trouble is not confined to petty annoyances, but has hardly any limits if you get a bad name with them.”

Socrates then says he wishes people had the same capacity for doing good as they do for doing harm, but adds that, although they may put him to death, the masses do not change who you are: “They cannot make a man wise or stupid; they simply act at random.”

He later comments that, “…one should not regard all the opinions that people hold, but only some and not others…” Crito then agrees with his statement on opinions that, “one should regard the good ones and not the bad… the opinions of the wise being good, and the opinions of the foolish, bad…”

“In that case, my dear fellow,” Socrates continues, “what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us, but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority who represents the actual truth.”

Socrates wants to hear from a moral expert; without finding one, he has to make up his own mind on what is right and wrong.

Crito, one of Plato’s shorter ethical works, is ostensibly about the death of Socrates, but it’s really about how to live an ethical life even under dire circumstances: wrongdoing damages the soul and must be avoided.

Socrates awaits his fate in his prison cell and is visited by his friend, Crito, who encourages Socrates to flee into exile. Socrates says no, and accepts his coming death calmly. However, the dialogue has much to say to us today outside of its historical context.

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Skepticism Too Easily Slides Into Cynicism

CynicismYears spent in the media, plus decades of independent practice as a writer and social critic honed my native skepticism into a protective psychological barrier against a wide range of social ailments and inappropriate, often dangerous beliefs. It has made me question motives, statements, logic and conclusions, and search for the underlying truths. It motivated me to explore, to examine, to dig deep. To try to understand, not simply deny.

It’s an easy slide, however, from a healthy skepticism to a soul-destroying cynicism – using the modern sense of the word. Modern cynicism encourages acceptance of the notion that everything is bad, rotten and evil except the viewer; cynics become too lazy, too self-assured of their own faith and beliefs to investigate further. They draw conclusions from surface appearances without going deeper; and blanket everything with negativism.

Skeptics, however, keep enough of an open mind to continue asking questions. Healthy skepticism is often paired with conscious awareness, emotional intelligence and ruthless compassion:

In order to have more freedom and empowerment in our lives we need conscious awareness, healthy skepticism, emotional intelligence and ruthless compassion. The more we practice these skills, the less we’ll be subject to manipulation and exploitation and the more unencumbered we’ll be in pursuing true happiness and fulfillment…
Our skepticism will bring out the best in the upstanding people and institutions and will bring out the worst in those that are dishonest and corrupt. By asking questions and observing the reactions and responses of those we’re questioning, we’re able to discover who we’re really dealing with and make informed choices with respect to them.
To question things is to take back control of our lives, because knowledge and understanding bring us power and choice and enable us to act on our own behalf in the best, most informed manner. Not accepting everything at face value and being skeptical about the underlying motivations of those who want to lead us, advise us or profit from us is a wise course of action for all the above reasons.

Cynics simply don’t believe in anything but their own surety. They don’t feel the need to go looking for the roots and the causes that skeptics hunt and wrestle with. Cynics are negative, skeptics are searching for answers. Cynics don’t have to take responsibility for things because they’ve already decided the world is against them: skeptics look for answers and meaning to make things connect and work.

You cannot shed light into the darkness if you’re convinced that there’s some ulterior motive behind the light. That’s why conspiracy theorists are for the most part cynics in the dark. Scientists, on the other hand, are generally skeptics with candles.

I’ve tried, through my life, to keep my skepticism healthy and active; a tool to fuel my curiosity, while dampening the trend to assume a cynical approach. I have tried to use skepticism in the way of free inquiry, as taught in the Kalama Sutra. After all, the word comes from the Greek skepsis, meaning “inquiry.” Not doubt.

I’m not always successful in avoiding the cascade into cynicism – it’s easier and faster, requires less effort and thought, especially with social media, but overall I believe I have stayed above it.

The philosopher Denis Diderot wrote in Pensées Philosophiques (1746):

Scepticism is the first step towards truth.

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The Best of Times

Tale of Two CitiesI was overcome this weekend with an urge to re-read Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities. I suspect it’s because of its brilliant, powerful opening. That opening epitomizes for me Collingwood’s municipal election and the dichotomy between the two camps: positive versus negative. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

I was downtown Saturday, shopping in the farmers’ market and local stores when the urge came over me. Ducking into Sandra’s little used-book store on Ontario Street, I found a copy. I sat on a bench downtown and read the first two chapters while Susan browsed in a nearby store. Wonderful stuff.

I carried it home (where it joins a couple of other editions of the same title). It’s actually a nice edition (shown in the cover image on the right); paired with another superb novel by Dickens: Great Expectations. Which title might also be said to reflect the overall tone of this election: all the expectations every candidate and his or her followers have for the outcome (I’m sure Terry Fallis would do it justice…).

The opening paragraph of Dickens’ novel reads:

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

That could easily be said reflect claims and counter-claims this election. It doesn’t need to be changed at all to be framed in a modern context.*

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Plato’s Apology

Walk AwayPlato records the trial and death of Socrates in four dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo. I’ve been reading The Apology this week and finding in it references that reflect well in today’s world, particularly in politics.*

In The Apology – which meant defence in Greek, not saying sorry as it does today – Socrates defends himself against his accusers in a deft and bold way, but he loses his case anyway. Still, he defended himself by telling the truth, off-the-cuff and spontaneously.

The Jowett translation of this dialogue opens with these words…

How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was – such was the effect of them; and yet they have hardly spoken a word of truth.
But many as their falsehoods were, there was one of them which quite amazed me; – I mean when they told you to be upon your guard, and not to let yourselves be deceived by the force of my eloquence. They ought to have been ashamed of saying this, because they were sure to be detected as soon as I opened my lips and displayed my deficiency; they certainly did appear to be most shameless in saying this, unless by the force of eloquence they mean the force of truth; for then I do indeed admit that I am eloquent. But in how different a way from theirs!
Well, as I was saying, they have hardly uttered a word, or not more than a word, of truth; but you shall hear from me the whole truth: not, however, delivered after their manner, in a set oration duly ornamented with words and phrases. No indeed! but I shall use the words and arguments which occur to me at the moment; for I am certain that this is right, and that at my time of life I ought not to be appearing before you, O men of Athens, in the character of a juvenile orator – let no one expect this of me.

I sympathize. Socrates faced accusers who slandered and lied about him and he found himself on trial in public, wrongfully accused and unprepared for the spiteful accusations against him, the misguided opinions.

I know that feeling. He then asks the jurors to

…think only of the justice of my cause, and give heed to that: let the judge decide justly and the speaker speak truly.

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The Utility Animal

In the July/August edition of Pets Magazine (the Cat Care issue) there are two articles that caused me concern. One is “The Loyalty and Bravery of a Cat” (p.28), the other is “Quick-Thinking Cat Saves the Day.” (p.26). The latter is a pet profile from the Purina Hall of Fame that honours pets for “extraordinary actions.” The former is about a YouTube video showing a family cat attacking a dog that had itself attacked the family’s four-year-old son.

The acts themselves and the cats involved are extraordinary and deserving of praise as individual animals. But the idea that cats in general need to be propped up as utility animals, that in order to have intrinsic value they need to perform some service for humans, bothers me deeply.

It also annoys me that cat lovers feel the need to be defensive about cats and find ways to make them seem more like dogs. They are separate species with very different social (pack) cultures and cannot be expected to behave like one another.

All animals evolved to fulfill their own purpose. Some have become domesticated through their interactions with humans; a few are even companion animals we call pets. Dogs and cats top that small list. And a small percentage of those perform acts that are of use or beneficial to humans.

Valuing an animal on the basis of its utility is to devalue the life of that animal. Animals do not exist to serve human needs. Yes, they can be trained to perform tasks, but that isn’t their purpose.

Cats have value simply by being cats. All life has its own inherent value and we cannot measure that value against its usefulness to our lives. Not should not – cannot. There is no appropriate measuring stick.

Any attempt only promotes subjective value judgments over other species. It’s akin to measuring the distance to a neighbouring planet by the number of bicycle lengths between us. Irrelevant.

Value your pet, value all life, for what it is. Not what use, not what advantage and not what profit you can gain from it. And I am happy to share my home with my pets for the sake of their companionship alone.

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Examined Lives

Examined LivesThought and deed. Thought and life. How does a person’s life, their upbringing, their daily toil affect their deepest thoughts, their beliefs, faith and passions?

And as outsiders looking in, can we understand a person’s thinking by examining their lives? Can we understand their philosophy that way?

I don’t know. Biographies describe the events of a person’s life, but cannot look into their innermost thoughts. Modern biographies told in conjunction with living people as collaborators may pull the curtains up, letting us see what they want us to see. But dead people?

Most lives are measured in arbitrary milestones that mark various transitions on the roads of our lives. Our tenth birthday. Or thirtieth. Sixtieth. First kiss, Last girl/boyfriend. First car. 100,00th kilometre on the odometer. Fifth anniversary. Tenth. First job, Last job. And so on. Do these events define a person, or are they just convenient places on which to hang memories or to craft stories that reflect the bigger picture?

Most of the biographies I’ve read, most of those that still sit on my bookshelves, follow the predictable path through their subject’s life: birth, childhood, teens… building the story through the stages of life until the focal period is reached – Shakespeare’s writing prime, Darwin’s epiphany before he wrote Origin, Einstein’s period of cosmological insight, Patton’s WWII activities, Nixon’s presidency, Hudson set adrift on the bay – there’s always a particular someplace the author wants to take us. Someplace that every other line in the book leads to; someplace that justifies all the rest of the writing.

Biographies are, too, interpretations; a form of storytelling designed to lift or tear down the subject for the audience. To reaffirm or demolish the image others (and history) have built around them. And to shore that view up through the bricks and mortar of fact and (allegedly) objective data.

Most of my biographies are about scientists, politicians, kings and queens, writers, warriors, explorers. Very few seem to be about philosophers (Montaigne excepted). Which is one reason I picked up James Miller’s 2011 book, Examined Lives, in which he looks at twelve philosophers – not just who they were and how they lived, but how that influenced what they thought. I wanted to flesh out my rather thin knowledge about these people: Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson and Nietzsche.

(You might note that my happy discovery of Montaigne among them helped incur my interest in the rest…). Yes, they are all men, all Western philosophers, and it’s a very personal selection, not entirely representative of the long trends and history of Western philosophy. Miller explains why he chose them, why he wrote this book, Examined Lives, and why philosophy is important to us today, in this radio interview:

Surely we can’t know them through fully biography alone; only know of them. But does knowing what Descartes ate, or where Montaigne wrote, or when Nietzsche went for his daily walks help us understand their thinking? Perhaps, if a causal link can be demonstrated (and that events and thoughts are not simply synchronistic) we can connect the dots. Miller helps us do that.

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Extra Virginity

Extra VirginityFor some time before I got this book, I’ve been aware that there is more to olive oil than meets the eye. Or tongue. How much more really was startling. When I started reading Tom Mueller’s 2012 book, Extra Virginity: the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, I was simply amazed at how little I really knew about the stuff (and of course you already know how much I love learning new things).

Recently, the good folks at the Collingwood Olive Oil Company (on St. Marie St) gave us a brief introduction and tasting of real extra-virgin olive oils (and continue to educate my palette every time I encounter them)*.

That’s a key step: tasting the good stuff. Once you do, tasting the usual supermarket oil seems like drinking 10W-40. You can’t go back.

When you sample real, fresh extra virgin olive oil, you wake up to an entirely new taste sensation. It’s not just a lubricant: there are flavours here, a multitude of them: rich, delicate, earthy, vegetal, crisp, citrus, peppery… That’s when you realize that, like you discovered with good wine and premium tequila, there are finer oil products than you’ve been buying at the supermarket and it’s time to learn about them. Thus begins your journey into this new world.

That journey, by the way, isn’t inexpensive. Quality comes with a price. Be prepared to pay premium prices for premium, authentic products. But, like premium 100% agave tequila, it’s worth it.

My relationship with olive oil started like yours probably did: buying olive oil in supermarkets, not really knowing what the various terms meant (what exactly does “extra virgin” mean?) or how to judge the difference between mediocre and quality oils. Picking brands by labels or familiarity or price. Not appreciating that olive oil is not the same as canola or sunflower or corn oil. Not really noticing a difference in flavour or aroma between them.

Muller writes on his website that what we expect from an oil’s taste may not be telling us which is best:

Bitterness and pungency are usually indicators of an oil’s healthfulness. Sweetness and butteriness are often not… Don’t be put off by bitterness or pungency – remember that these are usually indicators of the presence of healthful antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and other healthful “minor components” of top-quality olive oil – unless one of these characteristics is overwhelming and disproportionate to the others.

(His website is mirrored at Truth in Olive Oil)
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