The Austin Chronicle

Food for Thought: Summer Reading

Reviewed by Rachel Feit, June 1, 2012, Food

Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil

by Tom Mueller (W.W. Norton & Company, $25.95, 256 pp)

It is one of the food industry's dirty little secrets that the extra virgin olive oil most of us buy at our local grocers is anything but. In fact, by some estimates, more than 50% of the "extra-virgin" olive oil sold in America and the European Union is actually adulterated with deodorized seed oil of various types. True extra virgin olive oil, it seems, is as rare these days as a leatherback turtle. Who is perpetrating this fraud and how is it allowed to continue year after year? In Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, Tom Mueller illuminates the obscure world of olive oil production and trade. It is a world full of earnest growers, sinister oil bosses, and all character shades in between.

Olive oil holds a hallowed place in the mythology, history, and economy of many Mediterranean countries. For millennia, it has been prized not just as foodstuff, but as a universal fuel, lubricant, cosmetic, and solvent. Olives have been fundamental to the fortunes of communities and nations. Today, olive oil is a global industry producing more than a million tons annually, but despite increasing demand, prices have fallen significantly, and quality suffers more each year. A true extra virgin olive, the kind that meets the requirements defined by the International Olive Council, is something that connoisseurs value greatly, like fine wine, but market forces are making it an increasingly rare commodity. Mueller's book delves into the industry that is as impenetrable as it unregulated. His character portraits are engaging, even if at times the prose loses its narrative tension. Olive oil is, after all, a slippery subject.

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