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Extra Virginity: 03/12/12

cover art

Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller starts with the fact that not all "extra virgin" labeled olive oils actually are. From there it goes on to explore the business, history, culture and mystique of olive oil. According to the UC Davis report from July 2010, "69 percent of imported olive oil samples and 10 percent of California olive oil samples labeled as extra virgin oil failed to meet the IOC/USDA sensory (organoleptic) standards for extra virgin olive oil." Living in California, where 90% of our domestic produced olive oil does pass the test, my reaction to the book is, understandably somewhat jaded.

Mueller's book when speaking of the historical aspects of olive oil is a fascinating page turner. The olive groves and olive oil has been a part of Italy all the way back to the Roman empire. He includes discussions of literary texts, like the Odyssey, where he asks why is it that the olive tree on the hill is what signals home to Homer? To that he answers with his own experience of living in Italy and learning the landscape by the olive trees.

The modern day olive oil industry, especially the family run farms, are suffering. Mueller points to two culprits who are destroying it: distributers watering down quality oil with inferior oil and California's wine industry influenced techniques to increase the harvest and yield of quality oil.

Curious about that claim, I looked at the numbers of California olive oil production. As of 2004, it accounted for less than one percent of total U.S. consumption. Most of the olive oil consumed in the United States is imported. Spain and Italy make up 75 percent of the world production. So while California is making the most of its acreage to produce oil, most of it is consumed domestically and most of that consumption stays within the state.

Extra Virginity is still worth a read for any foodies or anyone interested in a very focused piece of Italian history and culture. There are tips in the endnotes for selecting quality oils and for recognizing a quality oil.

Read via NetGalley

Three stars

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