Years ago I was in the library when a copy of James Thurber's My Years with Ross fell on my head. Someone in the next row had pushed a big book too far and knocked the Thurber off the shelf. Such an appropriate way to meet Thurber, who is one of America's great eccentrics. The book was my introduction to the Algonquin Round Table and the New Yorker in its early years. Wonderful accident. Serendipity at it's happiest.
Extra Virginity was another one of those books that one occasionally stumbles over. A week or so ago I was at the library (so many wonderful things happen at the library) picking up my reserved books and I noticed the title, on reserve for someone else. I looked it up and discovered it's a book about olive oil. (What else would it be about?) So I requested it.
And I'm glad I did. Mueller, who writes for the New Yorker among other publications, has spent a great deal of time in olive groves, talking to olive growers, doing olive oil tastings (akin to wine tastings), drinking olive oil, making soap out of it, and of course using it in salads and other cooking.
Somewhere I read years ago that olive oil was a product with a shady past and a not much more brightly lit present. Organized crime in the US developed rapidly during the depression not just because of bootlegging liquor but also bootlegging olive oil. I had been warned that the label on a bottle of olive oil is not like that on a bottle of French wine, which you can trust. Most olive oil is not what it is labeled to be. And indeed, most of the olive oil in the US ranges from non-virgin oil labeled as virgin to sesame oil with green coloring added.
And yet olive oil has always been a symbol of purity. How did the product become so corrupted? Mueller attempts to explain the complexities of the problem. I learned so much about olive oil from this book - starting with the fact that it is a fruit juice - and about how it is produced and how to tell really good quality olive oil when you find it. (The price is a strong hint. Really good quality oil, extra-virgin, costs a fortune.)
There is a handy appendix in Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil that gives you lots of hints for what to look for and what to avoid. More information is found at the blog, Truth in Olive Oil, including brand names.
This book is a must-have for serious cooks.
2012 No 129