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A particular place, a particular soil

How do we get good olive oil? Tom Mueller has part of the answer, writes Alan Saunders

Alan Saunders 23 May 2012 1109 words

Churl Han/ Flickr

Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil
By Tom Mueller | Allen & Unwin | $29.99


A man who worked at an Italian-owned supermarket in an inner suburb of Sydney once advised me how to find good olive oil. You buy it in cans, he told me, and always go for the brightest, shiniest ones. These are the cans that are shifted most often because the stock needs to be replenished. The public has voted for them, rather than for their dustier, dingier neighbours, so you can tell they must be worth having.

If only it were always that simple. Most of us buy olive oil in bottles bedecked in green and gold labels bearing antique script that tells us the contents are “cold-pressed” and “extra virgin.” The story of how often and how much these labels lie constitutes much of the tale that Tom Mueller, an American journalist now resident among the olive groves of Liguria, has to tell in his passionate and learned new book, Extra Virginity.

But this is more than just an exposé of oleaginous malfeasance. It’s also a celebration of oil, its culture and the tree from which we take the fruit: it was fitting, says Mueller, that Homer chose an olive tree, rather than the curve of the surrounding hills, to tell Odysseus that he was back home in Ithaca. His search takes him as far afield as New Norcia in Western Australia (though it’s a pity that he has little to say about the industry in South Australia, where the sexual reproduction of olives, as opposed to propagation by cuttings, has led to some interesting varieties). His focus, however, is the Mediterranean, where olive oil is, perhaps, more important than anywhere else in the world.

Mueller does what they used to do there. He uses olive oil as a skin lotion and feels soft and soothed. He buys replicas of Roman oil lamps and lights them throughout the house, “their flames floating above dark pools of oil and emanating a faint sweetness, bathing familiar scenes in the tremulous amber light of the past.”

And he knows about the economic significance of the oil since ancient times. The importance of olive oil to the Romans is revealed by a place in Rome called Monte Testaccio: a mound, the size of a small hill, composed entirely of broken bits of amphorae, the jars in which oil was carried. (As a child, I filched a few of these pieces – which might or might not have been legal – and I still possess them.) The mountain, a huge rubbish dump, represents 1.75 billion litres of olive oil, distributed free to the citizenry thanks to government subsidy. In medieval times, despite the spread of barbarian lipids like butter and lard, olive oil continued to be prescribed by pharmacists for maladies as varied as skin disease or digestive disorders, and sorcerers and witches used it in their spells and unguents.

And where are we now? Back to spells and unguents. European Union law defines Virgin Olive Oil as oil obtained from the fruit of the olive (olive oil is the only commercially significant oil extracted from a fruit rather than from seeds like sunflower or canola oil) by mechanical processes that don’t cause alterations in the oil, and which has not undergone any treatment apart from washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration. This excludes oils obtained with solvents or with chemical or biochemical reagents. The highest level is extra virgin, which has to convince a panel that its taste is free of flaws and offers a detectable level of olive fruitiness.

Cuneiform tablets in the city of Ebla in what is now Syria reveal that there have long been olive oil inspectors on the lookout for fraudulent practices. Quite a few centuries on, olive oil is one of the food products most frequently adulterated in the European Union. It may be bottled in Italy, the label may look very Italian, but chances are that it will have been bottled there having arrived by the tanker loads from somewhere else. (“What’s this oil to do with virginity?” says one of Mueller’s experts. “This is a whore.”)

Many of these scams involve simply mixing low-grade vegetable oils, flavouring and colouring them with plant extracts and, as Mueller tells us, selling them in tins and bottles “emblazoned with Italian flags or paintings of Mount Vesuvius together with folksy names of imaginary producers.” The contents of tankers full of Greek oil, or even hazelnut oil and sunflower seed from Turkey and Argentina, have been passed off as Italian olive oil. Bertolli oil, a market leader in the United States, is made of Spanish oil, shipped to Italy for bottling. If you want to be a more sophisticated scamer, you can take pomace – an extract of olive pits, skin and flesh – and produce an odourless, tasteless fat which you can then blend with a little extra virgin olive oil. And then there’s deodorisation, the difficult-to-detect process of heating low-quality oil to remove unpleasant flavours and odours.

Bertolli insists that what matters is not the origin of the oil – which doesn’t have to be and usually isn’t Italy – but Italian skills in blending it. Yet its advertisements on Italian TV use Tuscan accents and settings. The results of this sort of thing can be grim. “So long as smelly, rancid oils and first-rate oils with the perfume of fresh olives bear the same name,” says one of Mueller’s informants, “quality producers in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean have no possibility of covering their costs.”

It is these quality producers who are the heroes of Mueller’s book. Extra Virginity is full of loving pen-portraits of them, from Flavio Zaramella, president of the Mastri Oleari and campaigner for good oil despite his cancer, to Gino Olivieri, eighty-five years old, who makes oil amid the terraced fields and limestone cliffs of Mueller’s Ligurian village. Every one of them knows that oil, just as much as wine, is the product of a particular place, a particular soil. It is never the sort of thing that you can ship in bulk.

So how do we get good olive oil, which is say, really, how do we get real olive oil? There is, perhaps, no easy answer. It would be nice if it were simply about the state of the can in which it is sold but, as Tom Mueller tells us, human greed and greedy ingenuity make it more difficult than that. •

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