Expanding on his New Yorker article exposing fraud in the olive oil industry, Mueller considers the trade’s past, present, and future.
The author opens with an olive oil tasting, where experts identify the flavors and fragrances that distinguish high-quality oil from lampante, which can legally be sold only for fuel—except that lax enforcement by the EU has led to an epidemic of oil labeled extra virgin and/or “100 percent Italian” when in fact it is a blend of cheaper oils from other countries. In addition to the slippery (but often surprisingly engaging) rascals whose shenanigans Mueller investigated in the original article, the author visits conscientious cultivators striving to elevate standards with a combination of time-honored techniques and cutting-edge technology. Among them are the De Carlos in Puglia, historic center of Italian olive oil production; the Vaño family in Jaén, trying to improve the generally low quality of Spanish oil; and Gordon Smyth of the New Norcia monastery near Perth, innovative preserver of a tradition established by the Spanish monks who brought olive trees to Australia in 1846. Mueller consults with chemists and government officials on two continents to examine why extra virgin olive oil is so healthful and why attempts to control its adulteration have been so ineffectual. (Short answer: corruption in Italy; indifferent FDA in America.) He intersperses aromatic vignettes from the history of olive oil, which in centuries past adorned the bodies of Greek athletes, burned in lamps in Christian churches, served as a folk remedy for a plethora of ailments and set the civilized Romans apart from those barbarians who favored meat, beer and animal fat over bread, wine and oil. So, “[a]re we witnessing a renaissance in oil, or the death of an industry?” The answer is still uncertain, but lovers of fine food and fine prose will relish Mueller’s exploration of the storied byways and modern sanctuaries of the olive, related with supple elegance.
Engrossing history, vivid contemporary reporting and a cogent call to action, expertly blended in an illuminating text.