Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil

I recently finished Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller. It has become a renowned book in the olive oil world because the author has done a brilliant job of researching, documenting, and then revealing the crooked side of the olive oil industry. It really is a groundbreaking book.

Mueller starts in Italy and explores how the unregulated world of olive oil has been corrupted. Rancid olives are imported from nearby countries, run through nasty treatments to make them tolerable, and then bottled in Italy. They are sold as “extra virgin olive oil from Italy.” Which is wrong entirely; it’s not extra virgin, it is often not olive oil, and it’s not from Italy.

And it’s not just an issue in Italy. Virtually every olive oil producing country has this problem, including (according to Mueller’s description) issues of false labeling and fraud in the Los Angles basin. To be fair, he makes clear the problem lies mostly in Europe. But the USA is not immune.

Other shortcuts include bottling others types of oil and then selling it as olive oil. This can sometimes lead to health issues as people dip their bread in a toxic goo. The authorities know about such practices, but they seldom see it as a significant health threat, so it isn’t monitored.

The theme of the book is threefold. First, there are a lot of shady practices happening around olive oil. Second, those practices are undermining public perception of what good olive oil tastes like, thus reducing the motivation for producers to create high quality products. Third, the result is ridiculously low prices, forcing out the small operator who wants to make a premium product.

I suppose the fourth theme is that this could all be stopped if regulators paid a tiny bit of attention. They monitor virtually every type of food production, yet somehow olive oil gets overlooked.

The bottom line is consistent with what I have been saying to friends for a long time: do your research, expect to pay more because the cheap stuff is probably awful (or downright dangerous), and don’t be seduced by fancy labels or “made it Italy” branding. Also, like good wine, your palate needs to learn the taste qualities of good olive oil. Take the time to learn.

One thing I enjoyed about the book is how Mueller celebrates the history of the olive. My husband Roy underlined the story about the Roman senator who said of the inhabitants north of the Danube River, “They lead the most miserable existence of all mankind, for they cultivate no olives and they drink no wine.” Yet another fun line from Mueller reads, “Cookbooks, like history, are written by the victors.” It’s clever writing, engaging, and easy to read.

I launched D’Oliva Olive Oil because I love great food, love to garden, and love people. More than just a mass produced product created for maximum profit, each olive tree is nurtured by hand and inspected weekly. This philosophy is the antithesis of the underworld that Mueller reveals in Extra Virginity.

Thankfully, there are a lot of great olive oil producers and good people in the industry. Mueller explores that in detail, often mentioning places and people that I have visited or met. He talks about the growing number of people committed to changing the industry. It was fun, exciting, and challenging for me to read!

This is a good book. It’s well written, timely, and has a whole cast of characters: old sun scorched farmers, corrupt government officials, dangerous international con artists, creative restauranteurs, and more.

Ultimately, it’s about the simple olive. As one reviewer said, the earth’s most poetic food has found its storyteller.