For 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)
But the story of olive oil is not simply about taste. That’s just the front-ending sensory bit that tweaks our attention. It’s a story about history, politics, crime, chemistry, agriculture, cultures, health, religion, international economics, travel, weather, medicine, perfume and of course all about people. And Mueller’s book takes us through all of them on an very readable, enjoyable ride.
I didn’t realize, for example, until I started Mueller’s book a couple of weeks back, what important role olive oil played in the Roman Empire. Not just to light the lamps of Cicero and Lucretius as they wrote their immortal works, but as part of the empire’s management and finances. Or how olive oil formed the basis of fortunes and power, of family wealth and cartels, just like petroleum oil is today. (It makes me want to read Gibbons and Livy to see what I can find in them about its history.)
Mueller’s book arose from an article called “Slippery Business” he wrote for the New Yorker in 2007. In that article – a precis of his much longer book – Mueller gives us an insight into the role of olive oil – and olive oil fraud – in antiquity:
Olive-oil fraud was already common in antiquity. Galen tells of unscrupulous oil merchants who mixed high-quality olive oil with cheaper substances like lard, and Apicius provides a recipe for turning cheap Spanish oil into prized oil from Istria using minced herbs and roots. The Greeks and the Romans used olive oil as food, soap, lotion, fuel for lamps and furnaces, a base for perfumes, and a cure for heart ailments, stomach aches, hair loss, and excessive perspiration. They also considered it a sacred substance; cult statues, like the effigy of Zeus at Olympia, were rubbed regularly with oil…. By the first century A.D., olives were a cash crop in the Roman Empire; in some regions, per-capita consumption of olive oil was as much as fifty litres a year… The family of Septimius Severus, who was emperor from 193 to 211, grew rich on oil in Leptis Magna, a city in the Tripolitania region of North Africa (now Libya). …The emperors Trajan and Hadrian were from the Baetica region of southern Spain (now Andalusia), and their accession triggered a boom in Baetica olive-oil exports. So much Baetica oil was sent to Rome that the amphorae in which it was transported, disposed of at a dump at the southeastern edge of the city, grew to a hill fifty metres high, known today as Monte Testaccio, or Mt. Potsherd.
The amphorae show evidence of extensive anti-fraud measures: each was painted with the exact weight of oil it contained, along with the name of the farm where the olives were pressed, the merchant who shipped the oil, and the official who verified this information before shipment… In other words, the ancient Romans anticipated fraud … and took more effective steps to prevent it than Italians do today.
I didn’t know about the ancient lineage of olive oil, dating back to the earliest human civilizations and how olive oil has been a player in every Mediterranean culture. Or about the olive tree wars in modern Israel and Palestine. Or that there are around 700 different types of olives and they all have their own taste, flavour and characteristics. Or that centrifuges are used instead of presses to extract the oil.
Nor did I realize the scope of the adulteration and fraud that exists in some supermarket olive oils. or about the big dollars in olive oil fraud and the international criminal rings that thrive on it.
I also didn’t know that government food agencies are generally aware of the fraud perpetuated on olive oil, but do little if anything at all to monitor it, much less actually prevent it.
It’s all fascinating stuff. I think the most difficult thing in reading Mueller is in not dropping everything, rushing to the cupboard to find and discard any supermarket olive oil, then rushing downtown to replenish my kitchen with the good stuff.
Of course you can find out a lot of this online, on YouTube and on Mueller’s own website, extravirginity.com. But a book is so much more satisfying. I highly recommend this book.
* Brief as in a two-hour exploration and tasting that had us sampling oils from all over the world, as well as stunning balsamic vinegars.
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I learned this week that Collingwood Olive Oil Co. on St. Marie Street has copies of Mueller’s book for sale.