Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil

I seemed to luck out a few months ago when one of our Canadian papers ran an article on a book about Olive Oil.  I was immediately excited since I love Olive Oil and was wanting to learn more.  I had already heard from a few sources that much of what is on the supermarket’s shelves isn’t 100% olive oil or is really low quality not fit for consumption (lampante oil) so I was instantly intrigued by a book promising to expose this part of the industry to a bit of light.  I contacted Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks near Granville Island in Vancouver, reserved a copy that was on order and had the book in my hands in a couple of weeks.

I took a long, long while to read this book but I truly could have finished in about 2 days.  It wasn’t that it wasn’t a fascinating read.  I simply realized early on into the book that I wanted to savour it.  I decided along the way to only read it while I was at my coffee shop in the mornings on weekends as a way to relax.  Then of course the usual ‘people watching’ kicked in as did chatting with other regulars and many mornings there was very little reading actually taking place.

“Extra Virginity”, written by Tom Mueller, takes the reader into the fraudulent world of the Olive Oil Industry.  You’ll learn about the history of olive oil, it’s cultural and historical significance, different ways it has been used in the past, how it was milled and other interesting bits but most importantly, Tom talks about the dark side of the industry.  Most of what is available to us is either not olive oil or it is rancid.  Companies, especially the big guys, are cutting olive oil with lower quality oils in order to save a buck while still continuing to slap an Extra Virgin Olive Oil label on the bottle.  Other times, olive oil is rancid but they have used methods to deodorize olive oil and colorants to make it look the way we’ve been trained to think it should.  We have been fooled into believing that a gentle or light olive oil is the way it should taste but this simply isn’t the case.

It’s not all doom and gloom though.  There are a number of high quality products on the market but you really do need to do some research to ensure that what you are buying and consuming actually is Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  I’ll use that term lightly because really, extra virgin doesn’t have any real meaning these days which you’ll soon realize once you read “Extra Virginity”.

Tom’s book was written with such passion and dedication that you can’t help but be excited about this issue.  One of the things that I loved most about Tom’s writing was that he describes the people that he’s interviewed with such respect and honesty.  His way of describing them really makes you feel as if you’re meeting them too.  You get a sense of who each person is and that you’re there right along side of them to listen in on the conversation.

I can not say enough about this book and honestly, I was a bit sad when I was finally finished reading it.  If you haven’t already read it, stop into your local bookshop to pick up a copy of order one online.

Here’s the link from Amazon.com:  Extra Virginity.  It’s about $15 USD at this time which is a pretty good deal.

Here’s the link for Amazon.ca: Extra Virginity.  It’s around $17 CAD.



How a simple road trip woke my tastebuds

My crush on olive oil began about 2 years ago on a 2 week road trip along the West Coast from Vancouver to San Francisco.  There were many memorable moments on this trip ranging from discovering that maybe I really DON’T hate beets after all,  to enjoying a simple morning latte with a bagel topped with cream cheese and fresh roma tomato at Cup a Joe Coffeehouse (they also had $1.95 beer during Happy Hour later in the day)  which was located half a block away from our awesome and affordable stay at Hotel Vertigo (The film Vertigo was filmed here… hence the name), being woken up at 3am in the morning for nearly an hour by someone playing select tracks of “The Bodyguard” soundtrack repeatedly (at first annoying and then enjoyable and now, surprisingly, one of my fondest memories of the trip), enjoying an upscale all vegetarian meal at Greens, discovering Christopher Elbow Chocolates, to falling in love with Petaluma where you must be careful to not get your car stuck on the train tracks (usually this usually only happens to folks that have either been drinking, are from out of town or possibly both.  It’s a somewhat common occurrence, or so we have been told,  and may also be considered entertainment for the locals as they drive by laughing with the windows down on a warm September evening).

On this trip I discovered that I love food, love Whitney Houston (you know, back before it was cool to love her again) and that I am a super taster (it’s a real thing, seriously).  The one main thing that has had the biggest impact on my life though, started with a stop at the smallest winery in Oregon.  Calamity Hill Vineyard is owned by Tom and Marion Vall, family friends of my travel companion.  We stopped in for a visit around lunchtime shortly after we left Portland and Marion had prepared a feast for us.  Tom gave us a tour of their vineyard and their olive grove, the garden, the chicken coup and their tasting room while Marion finished getting the food together.  She made so many dishes, each of them lovingly prepared with produce fresh from her garden, eggs fresh from their hens that morning, and the remaining ingredients were mostly, if not all, procured from other locals in the area.  As we ate food, sipped wine, enjoyed the scenery and had some great conversation, we ate… and ate… and ate some more.  I can’t remember another time when I ate so much food for lunch but I just couldn’t help myself.  Each dish was so simple yet fresh, crisp and full of flavour.  I’m not entirely sure what it was about the food on that trip but once we hit Oregon my tastebuds came to life and I was experiencing magic about food that I hadn’t know existed.

One of the dishes that Marion had prepared was red and golden beets tossed with olive oil and possibly some fresh herbs.  To give you a bit of history on my perception of beets,  my entire life I have hated them.  While others around me like my mom and countless other relatives loved them and find them sweet, I found them bitter and well, for lack of a better word, icky.  Even still, out of politeness in front of strangers, I put some beets on my plate and decided to choke them back and wash them down with large sips of wine, all the while keeping my face from grimacing as they went down.  It was a solid plan.  I did that for a few bites but then realized I wasn’t really needing to use as much wine as I originally thought and my face wasn’t twisting into something unrecognizable as I swallowed.  I started to taste, maybe even savour the beets and realized two things… 1.) maybe beets weren’t my enemy as originally believed and 2.) golden beets are pretty damn awesome.  I was shocked… and I really do mean shocked.  I think I annoyed my friend who was with me the rest of the trip whenever I brought beets up after that lunch.

I tried beets a few more times along the way on that trip and I didn’t really like them as much as I had at Calamity Hill.  I couldn’t really quite understand what it was about Marion’s dish that made it so much better than all the other beets that I had before and after that.  On the way back home, we stopped into Calamity Hill  to drop off a “Thank You” bottle of wine from our travels.  Tom told us then that we should stop into Red Ridge Farms on our way out to pick up some olive oil.  We did and I experienced a moment that has changed me forever.

Red Ridge Farms has a beautiful little nursery where you can buy herb plants, olive trees, etc and a store where you can browse for oils and gifts.  Most importantly, you can actually taste their oils before you buy them which was a real eye opener for me.  I was floored at how different each oil was and also how flavourful they were.  I slowly started to realize that it was the olive oil that had made the beets palatable to me.  Just like the right wine can make or break a recipe, so can the right olive oil.  They are not all equal and I will challenge anyone who says olive oil is olive oil.  They were more expensive than what I’d been used to spending on olive oil but I was definitely ok with that given the quality was so much better (more on that in another post).  I only wish though that I knew the proper way to taste oils but that info will come in a later post as well.  I ended up buying three different oils and some extras for gifts.  When they eventually ran out, I went on a quest in my local area to find a replacement.  A whole new world was beginning to unfold before me and that, folks, is start of my “crush” on olive oil.

Since that day, my fascination with olive oil has continued to grow and as I learn more, I’ll share more with the rest of you.  So, as you may have guessed, this blog will serve as an outlet to express my love of olive oil, real olive oil in my quest convert new olive oil lovers as well.

(For those of you who don’t know already, “the crush” in the olive oil world refers to the extraction or milling of olives to make olive oil.)