In 1985, when I was a fledgling food writer, I got a tip on a big story. A friend had just come back from a winter trip to Tuscany. There had been a freeze, he told me. Not just a little "whoops, we lost some leaves" chill, but a mega-momma that had devastated the region. Olive oil, which was just becoming a part of the American gourmet lexicon, had been particularly hard hit.
I reported out the story, calling importers, other experts with contacts in Tuscany, and even olive growers in the region itself. Sure enough, it turned out, up to 85% of the olive trees in the region had been killed. I talked to a farmer who almost wept describing how he had spent sleepless nights listening to the ancient trees in his orchard literally exploding as the freeze hit their hearts.
I confidently wrote a story describing the tragedy and advising my readers that they should stock up on Tuscan oil because there wasn't likely to be any more for a long, long time.
But the next year, exports of Tuscan olive oil increased.
My story wasn't wrong, at least in the details, though my believing that anyone could predict anything about the olive oil business was certainly naive. What I had missed was a loophole in Italian regulations so big you could ship a freighter through it — the name "Tuscan" on the label only specified where the oil had been bottled, not where it had been grown or even pressed.
In other words, in 1986 there had been a whole lot of cheap Algerian and Spanish olive oil that had been magically transformed into pricey Tuscan with just a little glue and a slip of paper. And that's the best-case scenario; odds are there was a whole lot of cottonseed oil in those bottles as well. Talk about transubstantiation!
That was my introduction to the olive oil business — the temptation to describe it as "slippery" is almost irresistible and certainly justifiable. If you're curious about just how slippery, Tom Mueller's "Extra Virginity" offers a smart, well-written crash course.
Mueller, a New Yorker writer who lives among olive groves in Liguria, is clearly besotted with great oil. That is a typical reaction from those who have been fortunate enough to have been exposed to the real thing. Great olive oil is beyond mere ingredient. Like great wine, it seems to have a life of its own.
Of course, there's a lot of not-so-great olive oil around too that is very definitely a mere ingredient; olive oil is one of the most widely used cooking fats in the world. And therein lies the rub. On the one hand you've got a wondrous, distinctive product made in very small amounts and sold for $35 to $40 a bottle and even more. On the other, you've got a bland supermarket staple (even average grocery stores sell a half-dozen types these days) that can sell for as little as $3 to $5. You can see why what Mueller describes as "the fraudsters" might be interested.
Even more, it's a pretty safe bet that the majority of the people who insist on cooking with "extra-virgin" olive oil have probably never tasted the great stuff in the first place, there's so little of it around. And they might not like it if they did — great oils have very distinctive flavors; some are so peppery that they can induce a coughing attack.
Which raises the question — if the customers don't know the difference, what's the harm (barring, of course, those oils that have been adulterated with dangerous chemicals)? If you insist on buying cheap "light" olive oil because you prefer its milder flavor, does it really matter that it's half cottonseed oil?
That's a complicated question that Mueller addresses only fleetingly — little wonder, it's probably a topic more fit for a philosophy course than anything else.
That said, Mueller does an impressive job reporting both extremes on the olive oil arc — the passionate artisanal producers who live and breathe for their beautiful oils, and those businessmen (some possibly honorable and others certainly not) who are merely selling another cooking fat at the lowest possible price and the greatest possible profit.
Indeed, for this long-time olive oil lover, it's hard not to turn green over Mueller's many visits to the "presses" in Italy, France, Greece and, yes, California, where those genuinely great oils are made. (Presses is in quotes because, as Mueller points out, modern oil production techniques don't actually crush olives — the common claim that an oil is "cold-pressed" or "first-pressed" is meaningless.)
At the same time, the reporter in me admires the way he's been able to ferret out and parse so carefully so many of the cheats, both large and small, that make up the other end of the olive oil business. (There's even more on the website he has set up in parallel with the book, http://www.extravirginity.com.)
It's probably true that for most shoppers, olive oil is nothing more than just a currently trendy cooking fat. But for those who know it can be more, this kind of information is the only defense. And I don't know anyone who has put it all together more thoroughly or entertainingly than Mueller.
Parsons is The Times' Food editor.