Whereas other people might bring back wine, or clothes, or salt and pepper shakers when they travel, chance are good if you look in my suitcase what you will find is olive oil. I love the stuff! A quick count of the number of different olive oils I have right now in my pantry comes in at six.
Some are mild, the kind I might use for a simple vinaigrette where the oil is not the star of the plate, but a bit actor, helping the plot progress. Others are strong, bold, assertive. Those I might use on a rustic bruschetta of grilled bread rubbed with garlic, drizzled with oil and sprinkled with salt. There you want an oil that can carry its own lines with a limited cast. Still others are neither bold nor shy, a middle character, say maybe the olive oil on a Caprese Salad, whose voice is heard but in a supporting role, helping the lead actors -- tomato, basil, and mozzarella.
So you can imagine my distress at reading Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller. The premise is simple enough, and I don't think it is a spoiler to say that the book centers around fraud and corruption in the olive oil industry. Mueller give example after example of alleged fraud, starting with a shipload of oil that mystically transmogrifies from hazelnut oil to olive oil during a month-long passage from Turkey to Italy. He goes on to document what he says are other cases of fraud, indifference by regulators both in Europe and America, and greed at nearly every step of the chain.
I have to admit that by half way through I was so depressed by the story that Extra Virginity tells that I skipped to the finish, hoping to find a happy ending, somewhere where the bad guys get caught and lovers reunite. I didn't find quite that, but I did find the next best thing -- an appendix titled "Choosing Good Oil" that gives resources, web addresses and suggestion for how and where to find good olive oil. Somewhat settled, I returned to the story Mueller tells.
Not only does he talk of the concerns with the purity and authenticity of the oil, he fills the book with the history of olive oil, stories of the real life people who strive for an honest and noble product, and anecdotes about the people he met. Having a grandson whose other grandparents are from Sicily, I particularly loved the character of two-year old olive oil aficionado, Cosimo, tasting the oil his Nono makes at Villa Campestri.
Extra Virginity is definitely worth the read, although it did leave me wondering where I can find good oil in Saskatoon. I still have something to look forward to when I travel, though -- finding more small artisan oils to fill my luggage and my pantry.
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