At a conference in Córdoba, Spain last summer Tom Mueller addressed a gathering of politicians, olive oil producers, scientists and journalists and urged them to repeat the words “extra virgin” three times slowly. The words soon become, he said, “not a food, but a strange religious cult, a language of initiation, or some place on the internet where you really would not want your children to go.”
He should know. Mueller is the investigative author whose 2007 piece in The New Yorker, Slippery Buisness: The Trade in Adulterated Olive Oil, forever changed the discourse about olive oil quality by uncovering plenty of places you wouldn’t want your children to go.
Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil is Mueller’s first book and, while the title emphasizes the weight and complexity of those words, it’s all about people.
Mueller is driven by a profound respect for the dedicated people who make good olive oiland a disdain for the fraudsters and profiteers who have always had their way with us. But much more than just getting in the faces of the good guys and the bad guys, he tells why it matters. And then you get it — you understand what olive oil really is, and why so many care about it so deeply.
After 256 engrossing pages that go by way too quickly, someone who never contemplated the tin of olive oil on the kitchen counter will know why it has brought out the best, and the worst in people for thousands (yes thousands) of years.
I tore through the book, then went back to the beginning and tore through it again. The only times I paused were to read a passage over to take it in a second time, marveling at Mueller’s way with words.
Readers of these pages know this is a critical time for the status of olive oil in the world. Producers in every region teeter on the edge of viability as a crisis of impossibly low prices — brought on by low-quality, often fraudelent oils and shady business practices — grinds on and on.
The European olive oil behemoths, or as Mueller calls them, “Big Oil,” will soon lose to some significant degree the subsidies that have long allowed them to undersell competitors. And New World producers, bolstered in part by Mueller’s 2007 exposé, are calling the Old Guard out, challenging the quality of their olive oils, and joining forces to fight for your business.
Extra virgin olive oil has been found to be extremely good for you — in ways we could have never imagined. But when we head to the local store to buy the extra virgin olive oil we’ve been reading about, very often what we bring home is something else entirely.
“A swift and widespread dumbing-down of olive oil quality has occurred, which in the end is everybody’s loss,” Mueller writes.
Andreas März, a Swiss agronomist and olive farmer who began his own investigation into olive oil adulteration in 2004, told Mueller “So long as smelly, rancid oils and first-rate oils with the perfume of fresh olives bear the same name, quality producers in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean have no possibility of covering their costs. So long as olive producers are unable to earn a fair profit for their olives and olive oil, groves will die out.”
What a shame that would be, when there are so many mouths to feed — so many cultures who are just now discovering this ancient food that would help them live longer.
Tom Mueller humanizes the hotbed of olive oil today in a way that is clear, credible and compelling. Extra Virginity, which will be released December 5th, could well prove to be the olive oil tipping point the world has been waiting for.