Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil
The sacred history and profane present of a substance long seen as the essence of health and civilization.
For millennia, fresh olive oil has been one of life’s necessities-not just as food but also as medicine, a beauty aid, and a vital element of religious ritual. Today’s researchers are continuing to confirm the remarkable, life-giving properties of true extra-virgin, and “extra-virgin Italian” has become the highest standard of quality.
But what if this symbol of purity has become deeply corrupt? Starting with an explosive article in The New Yorker, Tom Mueller has become the world’s expert on olive oil..Extra-virgin olive oil is a ubiquitous ingredient in Italian recipes, religious rituals and beauty products. But many of the bottles labeled “extra-virgin olive oil” on supermarket shelves have been adulterated and shouldn’t be classified as extra-virgin,
The term “extra-virgin olive oil” means the olive oil has been made from crushed olives and is not refined in any way by chemical solvents or high heat.
Mueller’s new book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, chronicles how resellers have added lower-priced, lower-grade oils and artificial coloring to extra-virgin olive oil, before passing the new adulterated substance along the supply chain. (One olive oil producer told Mueller that 50 percent of the olive oil sold in the United States alone is, in some ways, adulterated.)
Extra Virginity is a fascinating book and a timely one too, as olive oil undergoes changes in classifications, as more of it is being made around the world, and as millions more have come to choose it over other fats. Tom Mueller masterfully separates strands of information— and misinformation— about a subject that is complex and often dark but also one that illuminated with stories that reflect the dedication, heart and know-how to produce that oil that is truly a sacred substance.
Tom Mueller is a freelance writer who has lived in and around the Mediterranean, mostly in Italy, for the last two decades. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic, and other publications. He lives in Liguria in a stone medieval farmhouse surrounded by olive groves.
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