Over the holidays I read a brand new book called Extra Virginity: The Sublime And Scandalous World Of Olive Oil by journalist Tom Mueller. It’s the most fascinating and eye-opening book about food since Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life of Good Food Beyond Factory Farms by Nicolette Hahn Niman.
And, just as I’ll never eat factory farm food again, I’ll now never look at extra virgin olive oil in the same way.
Mueller writes in his book about one U.S. study that found more than 50 percent of supermarket EVOO’s were, in fact, sluts. As in not virgins at all.
According to Mueller, the world of extra virgin olive oil is ripe with a fascinating history and modern day scandal. Did you know that olive oil dates back to about 3000 B.C. and that for centuries it has been used as food, fuel, skin moisturizer, medicine and payment?
But even more startling, is the fact that what you are tossing your greens and cooking with today may not only not have the health benefits — lower cholesterol, control of your blood sugar and normalizing blood clotting — attributed to extra virgin olive oil, it may not even be real EVOO. (And thanks to Rachel Ray for putting that term in the dictionary.)
Mueller writes on his blog:
Over the last five years, while writing Extra Virginity, I’ve immersed myself in olive oil. I’ve traveled on 4 continents, meeting olive millers and oil-bottlers, lipid chemists and fraud investigators, oil-making monks and oil crooks, chefs and government regulators and oil sommeliers, as well as countless eager consumers, some of them life-long experts, others enjoying their first taste of great oil. In the process I’ve learned a lot about one of humankind’s most magnificent foods, this essence of health and flavor.
I’ve met olive growers and oil-makers whose divine nectars deserve to be celebrated around the world, treated with reverence and gratefulness. And I’ve seen that they’re losing their shirts.
Yes, losing their shirts. Because for all the things that are right about olive oil, there’s a whole lot that’s wrong. Again and again I’ve witnessed the same bizarre drama. Olive oil bottles labeled with fancy phrases – “cold pressed,” “made in Italy,” “first pressed,” “extra-light,” “pure,” and the ever-present “extra virgin” – that are meaningless, and often downright lies, false virgins selling at a fraction of the price of true extra virgin olive oil, which systematically undercut honest producers.
Faced with this situation, governments do nothing, oil buyers turn a blind eye, big bottlers and oil-traders pocket the cash. Consumers everywhere are systematically defrauded, and honest growers go bankrupt. Over the last five years I’ve seen one of the world’s greatest foods reach a breaking point, where the future of quality oil is in question."
Damn. Who knew?
He also writes in his book about one U.S. study that found more than 50 percent of supermarket EVOO’s were, in fact, sluts. As in not virgins at all.
Tasting the difference
Now I’m no expert and it would likely take a chem lab to tell me real EVOO from fake EVOO, but I decided to do an olive oil tasting just to see if I could tell the difference between oils.
I chose two supermarket oils and two house oils from Italian restaurants and followed the tasting information in Extra Virginity. Which is basically a lot like a wine tasting. Pour a little bit (about a tablespoon) into a glass, swirl, sniff, slurp and swallow. (No need to spit, you can’t get drunk sipping olive oil.)
The slurping is very important. Called strippaggio in Italian, it means you suck air in through the side of your mouth to release the aroma of the oil. It doesn’t sound pretty, but it’s kinda fun.
Anyway, I was very surprised that I really could taste the difference between the oils.
A quick aside: Dad can tell the difference between Maker’s Mark and the Jim Beam we usually swill. I can’t. But then I gave him a bottle of 10-year-old handcrafted Old Rip Van Winkle for Christmas and even without a side-by-side tasting I could tell just from sniffing the bourbon that it was something special.
So, back to the extra virgin olive oils. I really could tell a difference, a big difference in the oils. Color me surprised. I don’t know if there were any slutty virgins in there or if they were just different olives and processes. Just like where grapes are grown influences the taste of the wine, the same is true of olives and olive oil.
I really could tell a difference, a big difference in the oils. Color me surprised.
The two supermarket oils paled in comparison to the restaurant oils. They seemed bland and one hardly tasted of olive at all compared to the other two, one from Giacomo’s cibo e vino and one from Tony’s. (Vallone olive oil — which is a beautiful smoky dark green color — is sold at both Tony’s and Ciao Bello and made especially for the Vallone family.)
Those two smelled like olives and tasted fruity and a bit peppery. There was a bit of a bite in the back of the throat going down, but not the strong sensation Mueller describes that can make you cough. Maybe I need to go to Italy and taste oil straight from an ancient press made with olives picked that day from an old grove. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?
Anyway, I’ll never look at olive oil the same way again. Next time I buy olive oil it will come from one of those restaurants, or Sur La Table, which Mueller recommends, or Olive & Vine in CityCentre where you can actually taste the olive oil before you buy it.
I’d recommend this book to any foodie, and I’d also suggest doing your own extra virgin olive oil tasting after you finish reading. It was a fun and eye opening experience.