This is the kind of book I usually adore: food, science, history, politics, people. I also adore olive oil. Mueller does a pretty good job of giving the reader (or listener, in my case) a good overview of the world of olive oil.
Here are the things I learned from this book. One, there are many, many different kinds of olive oil, almost as many olive cultivars as there are cultivars of wine grapes. Like wine, olive oil has been around since antiquity, and has been a stable source of trade in the Mediterranean for millennia. The book talks about amphorae, and why they have their distinctive shape, which I found fascinating (sits better on the sides of ships).
It also spends a lot of time dwelling on the slipperiness of oil. Olive oil has historically been one of the most often-adulterated foodstuffs. Oil barons have been diluting their precious green gold with cheaper oils since the first amphora was crafted out of clay. It hasn’t ever stopped, apparently. Although the grade known as “extra virgin” is carefully delineated by European authorities, it is almost never enforced. In addition, olive oil cartels use their political power to shut down any grower who seeks more stringent regulations.
Mueller talks about the chemical composition of olive oil, and some of its unique antioxidant properties. He talks about how it affects the taste of food, how it stores and spoils, and how different varieties and growing conditions affect the taste of the oil. Like bitter beer, complex wine, or scotch whisky, real olive oil is an acquired taste, but its fans fall passionately in love with its complexity and nuances. It’s also very good for you. If you have a diet rich in olive oil, you are likely to benefit from huge health benefits–most notably cardiovascular.
So here’s the book in a nutshell: real olive oil is an ancient treasure, still made all over the world by fine growers and millers. It’s insanely nutritious, has many health benefits, and while it’s bitterness and pungency is likely to dissuade the uninitiated, once you catch the oil-fever, you will likely love it forever. However, you are not likely to ever taste real olive oil, because almost everything in the store is adulterated oil, mixed with seed oil or cheaper olive-pumice oil. No one tests for quality, and if they do, they don’t impose penalties on oil-adulterators because cheap, badly tasting canola oil is not a health risk.
I recommend this book for foodies and fans of Mediterranean food. Beware, however. If you are like me, this book will make you CRAVE olive oil. I eventually couldn’t stand it anymore and had to go out and buy a bottle from Whole Foods. Good thing it wasn’t a book about heroin or cocaine.