Extra virgin olive oil is the gateway drug to great food, as many a foodie has discovered. But in Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, Tom Mueller explains that what consumers around the world accept as EVOO usually isn’t.
The standards for what makes olive oil “extra virgin” are both objective and subjective. EVOO is supposed to come from fresh pressed (or centrifuged) olives maintained at relatively low temperatures, without heat or chemical treatment. Various regulations govern the chemical makeup of EVOO. The EU, for example, sets limits on the amount of free fatty acids and peroxides that can be in olive oil and still be called EVOO.
On the subjective side, the flavor of the oil determines whether it is “extra virgin.” EVOO should have a balance of fruity, bitter, and peppery flavors – a combination that can be challenging to those more used to softer, sweeter olive oil. Bitterness and pepperyness indicate the presence of antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and other “minor components” of top-quality olive oil that make it so healthy.
Mueller argues that most of the oil sold in Europe and America does not meet the definition of EVOO, for three main, sometimes interrelated, reasons. The first two are objective – the oil exceeds regulatory standards for free fatty acids, peroxides, or other elements, or the oil had been adulterated. Adulteration has been a problem with EVOO since ancient times. Oil has been labeled and sold as EVOO, even though it has been cut with seed or vegetable oil or with refined olive oil. Refined olive oil is the trickiest because it comes from olives, but has been processed with heat or chemicals that remove bad odors or flavors, but also remove the healthy elements of the oil.
The third reason is harder to pin down because it depends on the flavor of the oil. If the oil does not have the flavor profile described above, it should not be called EVOO. It may have bad flavors, such as moldy, rancid, cooked, greasy, metallic, or cardboard, or it may just lack the bitter and peppery flavors EVOO should have. Mueller makes the case for intentional mislabeling on the part of olive oil distributors trying to tap into a huge and growing market that demands the “extra virgin” label. That may be a big part of the problem, but flavor issues can also be the result of time. Olive oil is a natural fruit juice, so its flavor and aroma begin to deteriorate within a few months of milling, and quickly go downhill when the container is opened and the oil exposed to oxygen.
One drawback to Mueller’s book is a lack of organization. He combines chapters on the history of olive oil, the science and manufacturing of olive oil, recent olive oil scandals, and the current state of olive oil production in different countries. But he jumps around among these topics seemingly at random. Still, Extra Virginity is fascinating, argumentative, and enlightening. It will change the way you shop for and consume extra virgin olive oil.
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Tom Mueller has a great website devoted to olive oil called Truth in Olive Oil where you can find all kinds of information of how to taste, buy, and use good quality EVOO.
This counts as one of my books for the Foodie Reading Challenge, hosted by Margot at Joyfully Retired, the Non-Fiction, Non-Memoirs Challenge hosted by Julie at My Book Retreat and the Audio-Book Challenge hosted by Teresa at Teresa's Reading Corner.