The scandalous deflowering of the extra virgin
FOOD: PATRICK SKENE CATLINGreviews Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive OilBy Tom Mueller Atlantic Books, 238pp. £18.99
A DOVE BROUGHT Noah an olive branch as a promise of peace over dry land. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, is also the goddess of the olive. Aristotle valued the fruit so passionately that he wrote in The Constitution of the Atheniansthat any person who cut down an olive tree should be put to death. Thomas Jefferson called olives “the richest gift of heaven” and “the most interesting plant in existence”. He established an olive grove on his estate in South Carolina and ordered that an olive branch was to be flourished in the right talons of the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States, to counterbalance the pugnacious arrows in the other talons.
Tom Mueller, who was educated at Oxford and Harvard and contributes articles to several distinguished US magazines, is an ardent proponent of the production of pure extra-virgin olive oil and the exposure of corrupt counterfeits. He lives in Liguria, in northwestern Italy, with his wife and three children, and annually helps an elderly Italian neighbour gather his harvests of olives and grapes – two of the staples of the national diet.
Mueller laments that many supposedly high-quality Italian olive oils are not even wholly Italian. Their virginity may have been tampered with by dilution with inferior ingredients, such as hazelnut oil, imported from other countries, including Turkey and Tunisia. He has travelled worldwide, even to Australia, to research the long history of olive oil and its growing importance in modern trade, legitimate and illegitimate.
He first reported his principal findings in the New Yorker, which seems to have inculcated the meticulousness and clarity of his style. The magazine is renowned for editorial rigour, thoroughness of fact-checking and fastidious placement of every comma; benign influences that are apparent throughout this admirable and enjoyable book.
Mediterranean people, especially Italians, Greeks and Spaniards, believe in olive oil’s health-giving qualities and in its enhancement of the flavour of every sort of food – even, astonishingly, ice cream.
“When the Germanic tribes of northern and eastern Europe over-ran the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries,” Mueller writes, “they revolutionized its culinary fashions and brought the revenge of animal fat on imperial oil. These woodland hunters and pastoralists, who dressed in skins and furs instead of linen togas and silken tunics, introduced a Germanic nouvelle cuisine based not on the Greco-Roman triad of bread, wine and olive oil but on meat, beer and animal fat.” To the present day, the people of the south draw a line between their olive-oil cookery and what they regard as the culinary barbarism of the north.
Archaeological investigations of ancient centres of olive-oil production, such as Cyprus and Crete, as well as the Italian mainland, have shown that the oil was revered as a panacea. “Medieval pharmacists and apothecaries, following the advice of Hippocrates,” Mueller writes, “prescribed olive oil against numerous ailments, from skin disease to digestive disorders to gynaecological complaints, and used it as a base for numerous philtres and unguents; medieval formularies mention olive-based extracts of scorpion, viper, stork, bat, fox, and other medicinal creatures . . . Olive oil, taken internally, was considered an effective cure for . . . intestinal worms, snakebite, and even insanity . . . Doctors and holy men alike used oil against leprosy, blindness and demonic possession.”
In Mediterranean countries, olive oil is still used cosmetically, to improve the complexion and the condition of the hair, and in church rituals, anointing babies at the baptismal font, and coffins at the time of burial.
After his eloquent paean to the almost miraculous benefits of olive oil, past and present, Mueller sombrely points out the difficulties of producing and distributing enough high-quality oil for a global market of rapidly increasing appreciative awareness. Now the demand greatly exceeds authentic supply. The author’s revelation of olive-oil crime is alarming. In the US, his major concern, mafiosi are said to make more money from adulterated olive oil than from cocaine.
He implicates supposedly reputable giant companies as illicit traders in olive oil and blames governmental regulatory bodies everywhere for failing to function effectively. He warns against the fraudulence of bargain “extra virgin” oil, as the real thing costs about €6 a litre to produce. There is a helpful appendix on choosing good oil, and there are encouragingly decorative illustrations. The book is very nearly comprehensive, but you can’t have everything: there is no mention of Popeye the Sailor’s girlfriend, though her name, of course, is Olive Oyl.
Patrick Skene Catling is the author of 12 novels and nine books for children