There are few food terms as unimpeachable as "extra virgin." The label, as applied to olive oil, stands for purity, for goodness, for healthfulness, even – for a natural product so fresh and so guileless that it's not merely virginal, but doubly so. Or that's what you'd think.
In the summer of 2007, Tom Mueller, an American journalist living in Italy, published an article in The New Yorker that showed how the world's most ubiquitous luxury food didn't only fail to meet the "extra virgin" standard, but in many cases wasn't made from olives at all. Rogue chemists had learned to disguise tanker ships full of low-grade soybean oil and even lamp fuel so that it could pass for the highest grade of olive oil, Mr. Mueller revealed. Even such multinationals as Unilever, Nestlé and Bertolli sold "extra virgin" olive oil that was anything but.
Mr. Mueller's follow-up, called Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, was released this week. The book is part history (olive oil fraud goes back at least as far as the ancient Romans, although they had stronger regulations than exist today), part indictment (much of the framework surrounding Italy's olive oil industry makes it nearly impossible for quality producers to compete) and part travelogue (Australia and California have begun producing some of the world's best oils). Thankfully, it's also a consumer guide of sorts, a handbook to buying great oil without getting ripped off – something that is surprisingly easier in Canada, Mr. Mueller says, than most other places on earth. The Globe and Mail reached him at his home in Genoa, Italy, this week.
It's feels like on every 10th page of the book you're taking a swig of olive oil – chugging it straight out of the bottle or slugging it out of a shot glass. Is the stuff you're trying in Italy that much better than what we can get over here?
The short answer is yes. Part of it is thinking of olive oil as a fresh-squeezed fruit juice. It's fresh produce: You squish the olive, you extract the juice and you use it quickly. This is fundamentally different from the average North American view of olive oil, where it's just another long-shelf-life industrial fat that's dumped into the bottom of a frying pan. It does seem a bit odd at first to sip olive oil, and it's not the most natural way to use it. But it's very good if it's fresh: It's got a lot of character.
You write that the best-before dates on olive oil are typically two years from bottling, but that mass-market oil will often sit around in storage before the clock even starts ticking. What does "fresh" mean to you?
Every day that goes by, olive oil decomposes. It loses not only its flavour characteristics, but also its healthful properties. Certain oils hold up better than others, just like certain wines age better than others. But basically you should try to eat it within the same 12-month period that it was picked and pressed. And you need a harvest date on the bottle to know when that is.
Should we be concerned about the quality of extra virgin oil at the grocery store?
It's expensive to make really good olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil on the commodities market in Europe now, you can get it for 1.85 euros per litre. You cannot make real extra virgin olive oil for anything close to that price. And a producer of quality oil cannot begin to compete against that if consumers don't know the difference. And yet if you walk into a store, you're faced with a wall of labels, and they all say basically the same thing.
The good news about Canada is, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is very serious about olive oil. They do an excellent job of policing the market, and they've been doing it for over a decade. Despite the fact that everyone in the industry knows that the Canadian market is very well policed, they still turn up substantial percentages of fraudulent oil.
So if that much mass-market extra virgin oil is poor-quality – if it's even real extra virgin oil at all – what should people buy?
Go to a store where you can taste the oil before you buy it, and go to a store that has a good range of oils. I don't know about the rest of Canada, but I know that Halifax, Waterloo, Ont., and Sudbury have first-rate olive oil stores (www.allthingsolive.ca; www.danashortt.ca; http://adorooilsandvinegars.ca). An awareness is beginning to grow that just like with great chocolate, great coffee or great wine, there's a huge range of choice in olive oil too: There are big oils, medium oils, delicate oils, oils that are great for frying. There are 700 different kinds of olives, and each kind of olive can produce very different oil. Taste as much as you can. Ask them what to use it with – that's another question that people don't really think about. Are you going to drizzle it over sole, are you going to put it on your salad, are you going to deep-fat fry with it? Each oil has its ideal set of uses. And if you can't go to a store where you can taste before you buy, go to a place that has high turnover and a wide range, and ask some questions. Ask them what "fresh" means in olive oil. If they talk about a harvest date, you're on the right track.
You write quite a bit about how the Romans and ancient Greeks loved absolutely nothing more than dumping oil all over themselves – into their hair, on their clothes, rubbing it all over their bodies so they were literally dripping with the stuff. Is there something we're missing out on?
It's extraordinarily healthy. My baby daughter, when she was in diapers, had horrible diaper rash, and it was cured with one application of really good extra virgin oil – the polyphenols and other substances which are good internally are also really good externally. And from a hedonistic point of view, the Greeks and Romans wouldn't dream of doing sports, or bathing in the public bath, without having a good supply of scented olive oil to put on their bodies. When the good supply started to run out as the Barbarian invasions proceeded, they just shut down the baths and the gymnasia.
What about you? Do you oil yourself down on Friday nights?
I've used it a lot on my skin, after things like sunburns and abrasions and so on. But I have yet to really do the full-body oil immersion. One day, it'll happen. I know it will. I'm getting there.
This interview has been condensed and edited.