Book Review: Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil

I’ve long loved olive oil, and loved olives even longer than that. I dip bread in it, put it on the occasional salad, and drizzle it over vegetables. But until a friend (Mary Beth) recently turned me onto the good stuff I had no idea what I was missing. I would normally buy a $4 bottle of (allegedly) extra-virgin olive oil at WalMart.

I bought a better-looking bottle for $10 at Wegmans after getting halfway through the book. The new oil was so much better there was no going back. Then I went to the store my friend recommended, F. Oliver’s and bought a bottle there, around $14 I think. And it blew me away, it was far better than even the oil from Wegmans. I wish I had know about this years ago. Now the cheap stuff I was using tastes like bad vegetable cooking oil. (pic via the author’s site)

It seems that the olive oil industry is a strange miss-mash of actual cottage industry and massive multi-national corporations, with everything in between. And it would also appear that the average actor in this play is at some level mountebank, scoundrel, or misc. fraudster of some kind. Mr. Tom Mueller plans to blow this lid off this great EVOO conspiracy.

 [ Can American Virginity Be Saved? The Problem is Not What You Think – Speakeasy – WSJ ]

After reading this book you get the impression that it is nearly impossible to get good quality unadulterated olive unless you actually grow the trees yourself, harvest them, and press them accordingly, never letting the olives leave your sight. This is only a small exaggeration. In fact, noted Rolex enthusiast and author James Dowling grows his own olive trees for this very reason.

Imagine your average wine snob enthusiast. Now take the top 20% of them and you have a decent demo of the average oil enthusiast, at least that’s what I get from the book. ;-) Oh yeah, the book. The book just came out at the end of 2011. It’s Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller.

The Details:
Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil
Publication Date: December 5, 2011
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (December 5, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-13: 978-0393070217

The books is a nice look at the history of olive oil and how people have used it for thousands of years. Medicine, food, political wedge, condiment, even a still active role in many religious rites. Mr. Mueller takes the reader around most of the Mediterranean to meet with olive growers, processors, bottlers, etc. Small farmers in North Africa. Israelis, Palestinians, and Christians in the Levant, and the massive industry in Italy. He then moves a bit West to Spain where oil is still an important product. Later in the book we meet entrepreneurs and producers in the U.S., California in particular, then on to Australia and New Zealand.

The author’s official Web site for the book is a great info source and launch point. Mueller paints a picture of an industry that’s quite a mess. It’s not quite the “blood diamond of foods,” but it’s pretty bad.

One quick note, the author makes a few comments re: problems he apparently believes are the result of capitalism, free markets, or laissez-faire economic policy. He is under the impression that we are living in some kind of libertarian utopia, in which Messrs. Hayek (Friedrich, not Salma) and Friedman (Milton, not Thomas) sleep in eternal comfort knowing the world they dreamed of has come to pass (p. 48, 121-122). To be blunt, few things could be further from the truth. We most certainly do not live in a libertarian utopia. This book is a great read and wonderful resource for the story of olive oil. But using it as a source of opinions and knowledge about economics would be like asking the Pope for the best bets on the next horse race. There are also a couple romantic references to slow foods and “buy local” which are a bit off-putting. Okay, enough of that, you can find more economics elsewhere on this blog. Back to the review.

A few items of note from the book:
1. I had no idea there were so many “respected private olive oil associations …” p. 1
2. Strippaggio p.2
3. Lampante, read by it, don’t eat it. p. 5
4. “Petroluem is from petra and oleum, Latin for “olive oil from a stone.” p. 42

5. Via Aldous Huxley, the old Roman crown of olive that was think represents peace, really represents victory, via the Roman conquest of enemies. p. 44
5. “Four ‘Italian’ products in ten are actually foreign imports relabeled as Italian, often with false certificates of authenticity: over a third of pasta manufactured in Italy is made from imported wheat, half of mozzarella is produced with German milk and curds, and two-thirds of prosciutto comes from foreign hogs.” p. 46

6. Greeks eat 21 liters of olive oil per capita every year! 13 liters for Italians and Spaniards, 1 liter for Brits, and a little less than a liter in the U.S. Those in Kritsa on the island of Crete consume 50 liters of oil per person each year!! p. 81
7. The European laws surrounding the legal and proper production of olive oil read like a Geneva Seal (more) for food. p. 139
8. In this book, the term “Big Oil” has the same connotations you’d expect, but about the olive oil industry. p. 142

When I bought the oil from F. Oliver’s I was only halfway through the book and didn’t realize that a later part of it covered Mike Bradley and Veronica Foods of Oakland, California. That’s the source of F. Oliver’s oil.

In spite of my minor criticisms and notes above, I whole-heartedly recommend this book. It’s fantastic  and educated me a great deal. As a result I now enjoy much better meals with olive oil.  :-)

Additional links:
Amazon.com: Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil
Extra Virginity – Truth in Olive Oil
California’s Olive Oils Challenge Europe’s – NYTimes.com
F. Oliver’s Oils & Vinegars – Park Avenue – Rochester, NY
For Goodness Taste  – Your Personal Chef Service
Letter from Italy: Slippery Business : The New Yorker

Other Reviews:
‘Extra Virginity’ by Tom Mueller – a Word on Olive Oil – Review – NYTimes.com
‘Extra Virginity’ by Tom Mueller: book review – Los Angeles Times
Losing ‘Virginity': Olive Oil’s ‘Scandalous’ Fraud : NPR
Book Review: Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller – Businessweek
Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller – The Observer

  • ExBanker

    Thanks for the review.  My observations about his cheap shots at free-markets almost made me put the book down…  However, my love of olive oil was enough to get me past his less formulated perspective on economics…

    • http://pretenseofknowledge.com/ speedmaster

       Thanks for the comment, ExBanker. Yeah, they kinda bother me, too. But the rest of the book was so good I continued on.  ;-)

  • sportsforaliving

    So my question is: How does a sclub like me know what is the good stuff from the bad stuff?  From what I gather, you can’t go by price alone and I don’t have truckloads of free time to do a lot of tasting or online research.  What’s the answer?

    • http://pretenseofknowledge.com/ speedmaster

       I kind of came away with the same question. The only answer I got was to buy from someone whom you really trust, or one of the many sources in the back of the book he recommends.

      • OliveChirper

        ” The only answer I got was to buy from someone whom you really trust, or
        one of the many sources in the back of the book he recommends.” The latter is unfortunately the closest thing there is to an answer: there’s no reliable regulatory regime (government or trade association) anywhere in the world that really ensures quality. However, the sources listed in the book have now been greatly expanded viathe database of producers and sources of premium extra-virgin olive oil
        assembled on his website:
        http://www.truthinoliveoil.com/great-oil/best-olive-oils/