Virgin on the ridiculous: why olive oil will be hard pressed to survive

Extra Virginity: The Scandalous and Sublime World of Olive Oil
Thomas Mueller Atlantic Books; €20

It is a dead cert much of the extra virgin olive oil you have consumed did not do what it said on the label. If you want to use Italian oil, in particular, stick to the stuff you have seen pressed with your very own eyes.

As many a right-thinking Gael will tell you, olive oil, formerly a medication, was only recognised as a foodstuff in the early 1990s. Though the oil could sometimes be found in supermarkets, it was probably only 20 years ago that the Irish consumer began to consider its culinary merits, removing it from the bathroom medicine cabinet and into the kitchen.

Mass tourism and a growing interest in food opened eyes — and, more importantly, mouths — to the wonders of a whole new culinary world centred around olive oil. Furthermore, a diet heavy on olive oil, as well as tasting delicious, offered huge health benefits.

It’s a similar story all around the first world with olive oil becoming one of the primary items in the larder. All grist to the financial mill for the big olive oil exporters from Spain and Italy. And the biggest benefits came to those retailing bogus extra virgin olive oil, a practice more lucrative than selling cocaine.

Thomas Mueller’s brilliant Extra Virginity — The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, began life several years ago as a feature in the New Yorker magazine. Mueller detailed fraudulent practices, including deodorising equipment in Spanish olive mills, illegally used to remove the bad odours and flavours of inferior oils to pass them off as extra virgin. Heavily-refined oils were labelled “pure”.

Other mis-labelling included the use of “light” and “organic”, when the oils in question were neither. Small time operators coloured cheap soybean or canola oil with industrial chlorophyll, adding beta-carotene for flavour, and then passed it off as extra virgin oil from Puglia and Tuscany.

But the fraud was not restricted to cheap hustlers; skilled chemists operating from multi-million dollar labs around Europe produced bogus extra virgin oil involving networks of corrupt customs officers, businessmen and government officials. Though the fraud is global in scale, its epicentre appears to be in Italy. Put it this way, Italy has to import 400,000 tons of olive oil a year and yet remains the world’s second largest oil exporter. The imprimatur ‘Made in Italy’ is believed to generate €60bn annually through sales of counterfeit or adulterated foodstuffs.

In Puglia, the spiritual home of Italian olive oil, where the olive tree has been cultivated for thousands of years, they remark wryly about the giant tankers of Pugliese oil that trundle off to Tuscany in the dead of night: “They produce an awful lot of oil in Tuscany for a region with so comparatively few olive trees.”

Random testing on supermarket shelves all around the world frequently shows samples to be anything but extra virgin, sometimes not olive oil at all.

Mueller’s early excursions bring him into contact with evangelical anti-corruption oil crusader, Flavio Zaramella, who guides the author through a tasting, much like one would with wine. “I brought the supermarket oil last,” says Zaramella, “because it would have ruined your palate for the good ones, as surely as if you’d gargled cat piss.”

Nor are these corrupt practices a recent development. The US is the best place in the world to sell adulterated oil, providing the most lucrative rewards of all and in Life on the Missippi, written in 1833, Mark Twain recounts a conversation between two hucksters, where one talks of selling corn oil as “European olive oil” to immigrants.

In short, it is a dead cert much of the extra virgin olive oil you have consumed did not do what it said on the label. If you want to use Italian oil, in particular, it might be advisable to stick to the stuff you have seen pressed with your very own eyes. And, even then, consume with liberal amounts of scepticism.

But this book is much more than an exposé; the reason Mueller affords so much space to detailing the corruption is because it is the greatest threat to the continued production of pure extra virgin olive oil.

You see, Mueller is a believer and, like all oil acolytes, knows the liquid to be sacred. And, wonderfully for the reader, Mueller starts the book at the beginning of this love affair; as he learns, so do we, scalpel-sharp prose ennervated and aerated by his infectious veneration.

If olive oil is sacred, then Puglia is its Mecca. Wild olives have thrived here since the last ice age and many Pugliesi still pour a cross of olive oil on their soup, or pause at midday to drink a little cup of warmed oil. He meets those attempting to remain faithful to the old ways, often by introducing new methods; for example, there is really no longer such a thing as cold-pressed olive oil as most oil is now extracted by a centrifuge.

Olive oil is the only commercially significant vegetable oil to be extracted from a fruit rather than its seeds, meaning it can be extracted by mechanical means alone, unlike oil from seeds which involves the use of industrial solvents in large refineries. Extra virgin olive oil is the oil extracted from the best olives within 24 hours of being picked but, sadly, as Mueller illustrates, this notion is a moveable feast.

But his rendering of the history of olive oil, taking in the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome, shows it was not just a foodstuff; it served as a valuable fuel to heat the baths where citizens were massaged and cleaned in oil, then anointed in oil-based perfumes and unctions. The Athenians put themselves under the protection of Athena, the Goddess of the olive, while the Spartans bankrolled their mighty war machine with oil revenues.

Mueller’s epilogue wonders if this growing global appreciation for the very finest oil signals a renaissance or the final death throes of an industry, just another foodie fad du jour. By book’s end, it is hard not to share his lover’s angst at the possibility of a negative outcome. But should the world gradually reawaken to the myriad benefits of the sacred liquid, this book will be at the core of the revival.

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