Reach and Read: Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil

Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller

Why yes it is! Who knew? Another, albeit non-fiction this time, in the run of foodie books. Tom shares more detail and depth about olive oil than you might have ever thought possible. Not quite as scandalous as say, blood diamonds (Yikes!), but really eye opening none the less. His words add building support to the whole knowing where your food comes from schtick. I, for one am actively composing a letter to Costco to find out what they know and test for when sourcing their olive oil. Several months ago they shared an article (linked below) about how and where they sourced their honey from, which when you think about it, is quite the feat. I worked my behind off for 2 gallons this past year, not to mention the poor bee that only make 1/12 (yes, twelfth) teaspoon in her lifetime.

The book is a great mix of historical perspectives and roles, modern day applications, crime, scandal and duping the general public.

So, what makes a good pure high quality olive oil? Maybe start with what doesn’t.

First – what is in the name? extra virgin, accept nothing less. But beware, as the name alone is not a guarantee. Plain olive oil is fit only to light lamps (lampante!) Has nothing to do with cooking really. Don’t be fooled by “pure olive oil” that usually means it has undergone heavy refinement, usually with chemicals. Also, you might see olive pomace, and think, wow that sounds exotic and foodie-oodie! It’s not. It pretty low quality.

Second – Smooth flavor. Actually, that burning in the back of throat when you taste it means it is GOOD! I almost tossed a bottle because of it, but it really is one indicator that the oil is high in the compounds with anti-inflammatory properties. Not to say that there aren’t good ones that don’t burn though. It should have some flavor and it won’t be the same bottle to bottle or harvest.

Third – color doesn’t really mean anything, and green dye and chlorophyll are cheap

Fourth – Italian flags on the label mean nothing, maybe an Italian touched it at some point or someone got all sticker happy

So, what would a checklist look like? Just so happens that Real Simple had a basic one, that I added to after reading this book (which makes me an expert, no?)

What to Look For:

  • A dark-tinted glass bottle or tin – oil is light and heat sensitive. Hmm, should maybe not be storing on the stove…..
  • A born-on date or best if used by date. Oil does NOT get better with time. The book purports buying in bulk and bottling as close to purchase time as possible, as it stores better in large quantities (less air). Aim for two years or less. So, until I have my response from Costco, really ask yourself if you will go through that four liter value pack in two years.
  • Estate or vineyard name – similar to wine. Taking it way beyond the flag. And no “Bertolio” does not count. There might be some with seals of authenticity too but remember if it seems too good to be true (like really cheap) it probably isn’t.
  • USDA organic seal – since this is really the only way to ensure “regulation”. This means 95% of the oil regardless of origin is made with organic olives. Don’t rule out someone for not having though, its spendy to obtain.
  • Talk to the “vintner” or olive oil pro-shop person. Aim to buy local or as close as you can. California and Victoria seem to be the two big regions near Seattle right now.
  • A reasonable price – say $15 per liter or higher, like buying wine in essence. Learning about the process, it is not cheap to grow, harvest, press, transport, bottle a good cheap oil.

Tom has a great website with lots of links, blog (to keep the education flowing), resources, lists of reputable sources etc. Only one in Seattle, that is on the road trip list though. Check it out and then figure out where your olive oil is from –

I think that we are going to see increasingly more on this subject. And if a nice tasty restaurant charges you for oil or “premium” oil, pay for it – after reading this book, I have a deeper respect for the humble olive and its value. Stay tuned for the hopeful response from Costco.

Great article –

Costco connection article: Straight from the Hive

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