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.

There is a lot at stake. Olive oil is, as Mueller put it, “an age-​old food with space-​age qual­i­ties that med­ical sci­ence is just begin­ning to under­stand.”

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.

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Buy Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.


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