Friday, November 9, 2012

Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller

It's highly unlikely that the extra virgin olive oil that we find in grocery stores is correctly labelled, according to Tom Mueller in Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. The book examines the widespread fraud associated with extra virgin olive oil, as well as the fascinating social and cultural history of this amazing fruit. I listened to the Dreamscape audiobook [10.2 hours] expertly read by Peter Ganim.

Each chapter opens with one or two quotations. I was particularly taken by this one from "Lady of the Vines" by Yannis Ritsos: "Silently, the olive is reading within itself the Scriptures of the stone."

Mueller's closing paragraphs contrast olive oil with wine:

"Wine in a meal is the soloist, set apart in its gleaming glass, while oil permeates the food, losing itself but subtly changing everything. Wine's effects on us are vivid and swift, while oil works on the body in hidden ways, slow and lingering in the cells and in the mind, like myths. Wine is merry Dionysus; oil is Athena, solemn, wise, and unknowable.
Wine is how we would like life to be, but oil is how life is: fruity, pungent, with a hint of complex bitterness -- extra virginity's elusive triad."

From the rise in popularity of the "Mediterranean diet" (and its distortion by the U.S. government into an anti-fat mesage) to chefs creating room-temperature ice cream based on olive oil -- there are so many interesting things in this book.

Another example is the eureka moment when scientist Gary Beauchamp recognized the specific sharp burn while tasting olive oil as being the same as that caused by ibuprofen. "It's not like hot peppers, which burn everywhere on your lips, mouth, throat. Ibuprofen produces an entirely different sensory percept, which is extremely localized in the throat, and only happens after you swallow it." Turns out that olive oil does indeed have similar anti-inflammatory properties.

I love micro-histories that focus on a single topic like this. Mark Kurlansky's Salt and Jenny Balfour-Paul's Indigo are of the same sort.

Companion read: The Olive Tree by Carol Drinkwater.

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