If you ever had the sneaking suspicion that the words ‘extra virgin’ on olive oil was a load of old cobblers, pat yourself on the back. Your consumer’s BS meter is working fine.

I certainly feel more educated in consumer BS of all kinds after reading Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity, about the marketing of olive oil and the somewhat liberal interpretation of the meaningless phrase ‘extra virgin’. Blatted about by enthusiastic celebrity chefs slurping olive oil over everything and pronouncing it the best thing since balsamic vinegar (and let’s not go there)  ‘extra virgin’ is one of the most overworked phrases in the culinary arts. What does it mean exactly?

According to the IOC (that’s the International Olive Council, not the International Olympic Committee) ‘extra virgin’ means oil that is made solely by mechanical methods, isn’t chemically treated, and does not have ‘flaws’, tastes and odors such as smoke, mold and so on. This is followed by the lesser grade – virgin – which can be refined, ‘purified’ or otherwise have everything that makes it olive oil taken out, and the lowest grade, lampante, which is OK for burning in oil lamps and industrial use, but ‘unfit for human consumption’. Unfortunately for the IOC, a toothless tiger if ever there was one, there is apparently no way of enforcing the ‘extra virgin’ rule, so any old lamp oil can be sold as extra virgin, and usually is, with most consumers none the wiser.

Reading through Extra Virginity is quite an adventure, as well as an eye opener. Mueller introduces the reader to a range of colorful characters and romantic locations involved in the business of olive oil, from Tuscany to Western Australia, where the production of ‘real’ extra virgin olive oil is something of a religion – an ‘obsession’ Mueller prefers to call it – and may make WA the safest place to buy the stuff.

Certainly the book is scathing about ‘supermarket’ olive oil, which fills the shelves in a range of fancy labels, bottles and prices. While the celebrity chefs may be splashing about expensive oils of unimpeachable pedigree (and provided free of charge), most of us are at the mercy of the supermarkets, where it seems that even price is no guarantee of quality. The supermarket oils are old, rancid and fit only for burning the midnight oil, according to Mueller. Even though we may find the taste acceptable, that’s probably because it has gone through so much refinement, deodorising and false flavouring that it is no longer recognizable, and is as fake as a soapie star’s lips.

Mueller does offer some guidelines for making sure you are not being ripped off, but on the whole he paints a fairly depressing picture of the industry, and that heretofore innocent bottle of greenish liquid on your kitchen counter. Mueller leaves the reader feeling that any health benefits from olive oil have been utterly lost in the race for quick profits, and you’d be netter off just buying a jar of olives. But he does it in a very entertaining way, making Extra Virginity a great read even if you prefer canola, or Heaven help us, lard.

My thanks to Netgalley for the opportunity to review this book.