Tom Mueller, author of Extra-Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, was on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air radio show a few days ago—interesting in itself because the rumor among food writers is that Fresh Air “isn’t interested in food.” Still Tom’s book isn’t really about olive oil as food but olive oil as a source of fraud and scandal. But you wouldn’t know that from most of the comments posted on the NPR website (http://www.npr.org/2011/12/12/143154180/losing-virginity-olive-oils-scandalous-industry)—and they were legion, the great number of them complaining that neither Tom Mueller nor Terry Gross had revealed to consumers what brands to buy and what to avoid.
There’s a simple reason for that though it’s a little difficult for American consumers–used to having everything when they want it, where they want it,and at a price they can afford–to understand. The reason? Most of the good, honest,well-made, worth the price olive oil available in this country is made by very small producers with limited distribution. Thus, if I suggest to readers that they purchase, for instance, Olio Verde from Sicily or Biolea from the island of Crete—well, good luck finding them. Even a fairly large producer like Spain’s Castillo de Canena is actually not easy to find, simply because there is not enough of it to go around for everyone who claims to want a high-quality oil (whether they’re willing to pay for it is another question).
If you live in or near a city with a reputation for great food, you may find a retailer with one or more of those oils. If you’re willing to spend some time researching on line you can surely find them. But don—or of the many, many similar high-quality olive oils. Supermarket brands, especially house brands, are one of the most notorious suspects for fraudulent olive oil, i.e., oil masquerading as extra-virgin that has actually been deodorized (against regulations but widely practiced), or even oil masquerading as olive oil that is actually made up of other kinds of oil (completely illegal but also disregarded by unscrupulous bottlers).
And please don’t come back at me complaining about the price of true high-quality extra-virgin olive oil. You don’t complain about the price of Chassagne-Montrachet, do you? Making, storing, bottling, and shipping high-quality olive oil is just as expensive as making fine wine and deserves the price that is asked for it. If you don’t want to pay that price—well, I’m sorry, but that’s life. If you don’t have the money for a BMW, you’ll drive, like me, an ancient Subaru.
There’s another problem with olive oil, however, that Mueller’s book only touches on, and that goes to the heart of the distribution network. Once the oil has left the producer’s hands it becomes a potential victim of the time and stress involved in getting it eventually into the consumer’s kitchen. No one—and I emphasize that: no one—along the chain from producer to consumer has any interest at all in seeing that olive oil is treated properly. Light and heat are the two enemies of high-quality extra-virgin—that cannot be emphasized sufficiently. And yet, I have seen, even in classy gourmet stores, clear glass bottles of what I know to be well-made extra-virgin displayed under shelf lights or even, perish forbid, in sunny windows, many of the oils well past any “use by” date. And the abuse begins even earlier in the life of the bottle. The most carefully produced oil, bottled in dark glass to keep the light out, will not benefit from sitting on a dock in New York or Boston for weeks on end in the August sun. Alexandra de Varenne, who works with the University of California’s Olive Center, tells of a container of olive oil that arrived at the warehouse proudly stamped with an official document stating that it had been exposed to 90ºF. for up to an hour—this in order to fumigate the container. One can only imagine what that olive oil tasted like when it arrive in some poor soul’s kitchen.
So what then is a consumer to do? This was the question that drove the obvious anxiety behind most of the comments on the NPR website. I can only repeat the advice Marcella Hazan gave me many years ago (she was talking about salt but it holds for just about anything in the kitchen): “You must taste, taste, taste.” You must educate yourself by tasting. You must cultivate shops where clerks and owners appear to know what they’re talking about. And once you’ve absorbed what they have to say, move on to another shop where you may get a very different opinion, and soon enough you will be able to evaluate which of many opinions come closer to your own. You must go to tastings whether in shops, in cooking schools, in local community colleges, or similar venues. You must read—not just Mueller’s book but any one of several good recent books about olive oil that are available.
You could (this is the department of shameless self-promotion) also sign on to a course such as the one I lead at Villa Campestri in Tuscany (see my web site, nancyharmonjenkins.com) where we spend a number of days studying and tasting extra-virgin olive oil, learning how it is made, how changes have made it possible to produce more extra-virgin, why the flavors are so different one from another, and how those flavors can be put to work in the kitchen and at the table. We’ll be doing two more of these courses in October and November of this coming year, right around the time of the olive harvest, and I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to deepen his or her knowledge about this key ingredient.
But don’t expect all this knowledge simply to be handed to you by an interviewer on an NPR radio program. You have to put a little work into this, and you have to understand, as I have come to, that it is an ongoing, never-ending subject. I think I know a lot about extra-virgin olive oil, and I probably do know a lot more than you do. But every year, every season, I discover something new, something I hadn’t thought of or experienced, and every time that happens it wakens my eyes and my palate yet again to the magnificence of this humble product.