Monday, April 16, 2012

Oil of the Ages

Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller

I've been exploring the local farmer's market recently, coming home with vegetables I have no idea how to cook. When I look up recipes on the internet, they invariably include olive oil as the first ingredient. This is the lesson I have learned: Pour in some oil, mince some garlic, saute some onions, and you're in business. Alternately, just rub olive oil, salt, and pepper over whatever vegetable you have on hand, roast it in the oven for 45 minutes, and there's your side dish. It's a little spooky. Like a magic potion. How did I not realize that olive oil had such mysterious power before?

Because of these recent revelations I was thrilled to see Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil on the shelf. It begins with beautiful, sensuous descriptions of olive oil and its spread from the Mediterranean to the rest of the culinary world. More than 4,000 years of history can be found in each bottle of olive oil. But what might also be found in those bottles is a deception. The story quickly turns to underhanded dealings and adulterated oils. Since the time of the Romans people have been trying to pull a fast one by mixing olive oil with various seed oils, which are cheaper to make. In fact, the author argues that most oil labeled "Extra Virgin" is nothing close. To truly meet that standard it must pass a rigorous battery of taste tests, which it rarely does. You can read in the book of the many small farmers trying to make a profit and stay honest in this cut-throat world.

Even with all of this downbeat news, my mind still wanders the olive groves of Italy, California, Spain, and Australia. The passion of the people who grow the olives and turn them into oil is contagious. It's not just a condiment, it seems. Olive oil is a lifestyle for these people. If you'd like to find out more about olive oil, from its origins to the bottles lining your supermarket shelves, check out this book.

It even gives you some tips on buying the best olive oil you can find. (For instance: The color of the oil doesn't matter so much, but the bottle should be of dark glass.) Along with a glossary and some links to sites where you can find premium oil for sale, this really is your one-stop shop for olive oil info. The author's website also offers a Buyer's Guide to Olive Oil in North America.

If your stomach is rumbling for some oil-infused recipes, check out these books on cooking with olive oil.

Review by Danny Hanbery


  1. Olive oil is magical.

    I will now purchase olive oil in dark glass bottles.

  2. top secret information: olive oil is SOOOO good for removing make-up and generally giving the skin on your face a treat:)