Burton Anderson: Beyond Vino

Burton Anderson: Beyond Vino
Life is a fiasco


Tom Mueller’s Masterful “Extra Virginity”

Olive oil is as close to my heart as wine. For decades I’ve grown and hand harvested olives for what, with luck, would be enough to supply the family for a year. I know the thrill growers feel when they return from the mill with their zesty new oil to douse slabs of grilled bruschetta. I’ve learned the long and hard way the value of true olive oil as opposed to the dubiously cheap stuff labeled “extra virgin” that clutters supermarket shelves everywhere. I’ve known all along about the monstrous scope of olive oil fraud in Italy and abroad, but never found the energy, perseverance, or, above all, the courage to write about it.

Finally somebody has, and far exceeded my aspirations. Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity, the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (W. W. Norton & Company), is a milestone in writing on food and a masterpiece of investigative reporting. Tom, a fellow Yank living in Italy, is a bright young guy whose views are so close to mine on olive oil and much else that I consider him a soul mate, fellow traveler, and pal. I know I’m breaking rules in heaping praise on the work of a friend, but no apologies. This is a book of fundamental importance to anyone who cares about the quality and authenticity of olive oil, and, for that matter, almost anything they eat. Food fraud is by no means confined to oil.

Written with passion, wisdom, and wit, Extra Viriginity explores the world of olive oil from its remote origins to its sublime and scandalous present, contrasting the machinations of multinationals that dominate the trade with the down-to-earth quests for excellence of artisan growers.

Tom uses profiles of dedicated producers to point out differences in typology and quality of oils made from hundreds of olive varieties grown on four continents. He tells how to recognize honest oils and how to judge quality through elaborate tasting procedures.  He describes the character of oils that deserve to be as prized as estate-bottled wines. He reviews with candor the healthful qualities of honest extra virgins as opposed to the worthless and sometimes even noxious contents of phony oils.

Through it all a negative tone underlines the anger and frustration of people who seek honesty in an industry that is hopelessly corrupt. Here’s the sad tale in Tom’s words:

“I’ve met olive growers and oil-makers whose divine nectars deserve to be celebrated around the world, treated with reverence and gratefulness. And I’ve seen that they’re losing their shirts. Yes, losing their shirts. Because for all the things that are right about olive oil, there’s a whole lot that’s wrong. Again and again I’ve witnessed the same bizarre drama. Olive oil bottles labeled with fancy phrases—‘cold pressed,’ ‘Made in Italy,’ ‘first pressed,’ ‘extra light,’ ‘pure,’ and the ever-present ‘extra virgin’—that are meaningless, and often downright lies, false virgins selling at a fraction of the price of true extra virgin olive oil. Faced with this situation, governments do nothing, oil buyers turn a blind eye, big bottlers and oil traders pocket the cash. Consumers everywhere are systematically defrauded, and honest growers go bankrupt. Over the last five years I’ve seen one of the world’s greatest foods reach a breaking point, where the future of quality oil is in question. It makes no sense, but it’s happening now.”

As a veteran oil advocate I can vouch that there’s no exaggeration there. It has long amazed and appalled me that the powers that be in Italy—as in Spain, the largest olive producer—have left the oil industry to its own devices. Equally shameful, the press in Italy and abroad has shied away from exposing the methods of a worldwide cartel wrought with fraud and corruption.

Only after Extra Virginity was published last December did the Italian daily La Repubblica publish an article echoing Tom Mueller’s accusations—without, of course, mentioning his name.

Take the case of Andreas März, the Swiss editor of the wine magazine Merum and a producer of fine oils in Tuscany. März wrote an article, based on interviews with experts, accusing the giant Carapelli firm of, among other things, labeling inferior oils as “extra virgin” in outright contempt of the law. Carapelli sued März in a case that dragged out for years until, finally, a judge ruled decisively in favor of the accused.

That surprise verdict delighted März and fellow artisans, who expected it to set off a groundswell of public opinion against oil fraud and strike a crippling blow to dishonest industrialists. Instead, to my knowledge, the case was never mentioned in the Italian press and no legal action has been brought against Carapelli or other oil giants.

Italians, a people of countless attributes, have a maddening tendency to take corruption for granted, quietly tolerating dirty dealings in politics, bureaucracy, business, finance, and, of course, organized crime, which taints all it touches. Silvio Berlusconi with his godfather manners may be blamed for lowering ethical standards while making Italy the laughing stock of Europe. Yet the ex-premier’s crass conniving seems merely symptomatic of the moral malaise that plagues the nation. 

But enough. There’s much more to this superb book than slippery businesses in Italy and Spain. Tom has explored the new world of olive oil with the same sort of diligence he brings to the old. Everywhere he goes, he converses with characters: cooks, shopkeepers, farmers, importers and exporters, food cops, and oil-makers at all levels of production, including an order of Australian monks. He even conveys the message that if the old world doesn’t correct its erratic ways with olive oil, the new world may surpass it in production and commerce.

Tom traces the history of olive oil, with its legends and myths, relating its manifold uses among ancient peoples as a food and preservative, lamp fuel, lubricant, soap, and base of cosmetics. He discusses its symbolic value in the sacred and profane, emphasizing wine as oil’s age-old companion and rival. But why go into the detail that readers will savor once they pick up the book.

Before I read it, I was stunned that a New York Times reviewer ridiculed the book and its author in a way that was, well, sophomorically snotty. I suspect he didn’t read the book in depth and doesn’t give a damn about olive oil anyway. Whatever, he grandly flaunted his ignorance.

Extra Virginity should not only be coveted by food lovers, it ought to be required reading for anyone involved in the commerce and legal control of comestibles throughout the world—starting with Italy and Spain. I hope it will be translated into many languages and remain on the market for many years. It ought to become the  handbook of a revolution, influencing writers, legislators, law enforcers, and, above all, consumers to insist on honest quality in olive oil and pressure a hopelessly corrupt industry to clean up its act or drown in its own dregs.

While, I’m at it, I’d like to boost Tom Mueller’s candidacy for honors, not only in the field of writing on food, but also for a Pulitzer and/or National Book Award. In my mind, it’s that momentous, a work of outstanding courage. As the guy who didn’t write it, I admire it all the more.

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