Monday, March 2, 2015

Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller [book review]

This month's Kitchen Reader book was Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller (chosen by Amanda of Omar Niode Foundation).

This is a wide-ranging book, both in place and time. Olive oil has been in use since ancient times as a food; over time it has also been used as a fuel for lighting, a perfume, cosmetic, for religious annointing, as a fabric softener, contraceptive, detergent, preservative, pesticide, medicine, and machine lubricant.

Featured in the book is an olive oil producing family who run Castillo de Canena in Spain. (I have discovered an importer of theirs in Singapore: Delicia, so I plan to try their oils soon.) The brother and sister team come from a family that has been making oil since 1780 and they currently have 280000 trees. They make a low-grade bulk oil, which accounts for 95% of their production, and a line of high-quality extra virgin oil that already (as of 2013) accounts for a quarter of their profits. Their joy is in bringing out the best flavours in their premium oils by experimenting with irrigation, harvesting, and making small batches.

From this book, I learned that the three things to look for in a good extra virgin olive oil are: fruity aroma and flavour, pungency, and bitterness. Mislabelling of extra virgin olive oil is a rampant problem around the world. The book explores the long-standing corruption that plagues the industry. Lax laws and not much appetite to confront big companies mean that many feel it may not improve for a long time.

Because of this, I was keen to read this book to find out how to buy genuine extra virgin olive oil. The book contains an appendix detailing this, and fortunately for you, it is also available on Mueller's website. The one tip I picked up that I have already used regards the best before date. Oils are given a two year lifetime, but they are only at their best during the first year, Mueller argues. So look for the date and try to buy an oil that was made in this year's harvest, that is, in the most recent autumn season of the country of origin. And always buy oil sold in dark glass bottles, since light causes it to spoil more quickly.

This book was informative and interesting, but it's still not clear to me, even after finishing it, how it is organised. Every chapter contains anecdotes and vignettes both modern and ancient. The book jumps around the globe and from topic to topic.

I think the idea of hosting an olive oil tasting party sounds like a promising way to try new oils. Apparently, when you try your first excellent oil, it's magical. I am not sure if I have tried a life-changing oil before, so I hope to do so soon.

Next month, the Kitchen Reader members are reading books by or about Elizabeth David. Would you like to join us?

What do you look for in an olive oil?

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