(If this scandalizes you, hooray! You’re probably one of Charles Murray’s sheltered cognitive elites!)
Title: Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller
Motivation: A superb title—how can a gourmand resist such marketing genius?
Completed: May 30, 2012 (#34)
Recommendation: Superfluous Man Guarantee. Absolutely worth your time and treasure.
J’accuse! The olive oil business is dirty. What you believe to be extra virgin is in all likelihood actually lampante (Italian for “suitable for burning in a lamp”). Or worse: it might not even be made from olives at all.
Consider one consumer advocate profiled in Mr. Mueller’s two-thousand-years-overdue exposé:
In 2004, he began his own investigation. He bought thirty-one bottles of extra virgin oil in supermarkets throughout Germany, and sent them to Florence for testing by three highly trained taste panels. The results were unanimous. Only one of the thirty-one oils was actually extra virgin grade. Nine were virgin, a grade below extra virgin. The rest, including oils by Bertolli, Carapelli, Rubino, and other major Italian names, were adjudged to be lampante, and therefore legally unfit for human consumption.
Dio mio! One of thirty-one! Picture a roulette wheel in your mind’s eye and give it a spin: you’re roughly as likely to land on Lucky 7 as you are to choose a random bottle of genuine EVOO at a supermarket…in Europe. Imagine your odds at an American or Asian supermarket, where consumer familiarity with the product is far less than in the very cradle of oleology!
By comparison, the wine business is relatively clean. Unless you buy your Lafite Rothschild in Shenzhen, the label you see on the shelf is almost certainly reflective of the bottle’s true contents. Whether the wine is good, bad, or indifferent is a matter of taste, vintage, price, and a host of other factors, but its quality is not likely to be affected by the mafia or smuggled Turkish grapes.
Grapes contain not wine but grape juice, which must be transformed by the vintner’s art. Oil is already there in the olive, if we can only coax it free. Wine in the final analysis is man-made, while oil is made by nature, through the medium of the strange tree—mysterious, because it comes from something greater than ourselves. Wine in a meal is the soloist, set apart in its gleaming glass, while oil permeates the food, losing itself but subtly changing everything. Wine’s effects on us are vivid and swift, while oil works on the body in hidden ways, slow and lingering in the cells and in the mind, like myths. Wine is merry Dionysus; oil is Athena, solemn, wise, and unknowable.
Olive oil is just the juice of olives, and that’s the way you should think of it. Like orange juice, if it’s pressed under hygienic conditions, bottled and shipped promptly, and stored at an appropriate temperature, olive oil will be at its freshest and best. On the nose, extra-virgin olive oil will have a fresh, pungent, olive-like smell; in the throat, it may burn a bit. That’s what true olive oil is, not the insipid granola-canola-motor oil knock-offs that your local supermarket pushes, which in addition to carrying a musty rancid odor shares none of the extraordinary health benefits of olive oil.
Mr. Mueller’s fine book introduces the reader to the science, art, and (dark) history of the olive. A Superfluous Man guarantees absolutely that you will enjoy this book—it just may change your culinary life for the better.