Shelf Life

The scandalous world of olive oil

Kai Ryssdal Dec 15, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: Sometimes you can do a book interview and it’s enough to just sit in a studio and talk. But sometimes it’s more of an experiential thing, where there’s something to actually do.

Which explains how I found myself out in West Hollywood last week at a store called Oliana, purveyor of of fine olive oils. I was there to meet and sample some of the goods with Tom Mueller, whose new book is called “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.” We started with a simple definition.

Tom Mueller: It’s fresh squeezed fruit juice. Olives are fruit. They’re a stone fruit like cherries and apricots. The sad thing about extra virgin — as a legal definition is…

Ryssdal: Back up for a second. There’s a legal definition?

Mueller: Yeah. Absolutely. It just says it can’t stink. But most of the stuff that you have does stink and should immediately be disqualified.

Ryssdal: Walking into this place, the visual impression is crazy because there is row after row after row of these tiny stainless steel vats in which are all these different kinds of olive oil. I mean, it’s kind of an extraordinary set up.

Mueller: Well, 700 different kinds of olives make a lot of different kinds of olive oils. This line could go for 100 meters.

Ryssdal: Right and we’ve got a dozen here all in a row.

Mueller: Yeah, exactly.

Ryssdal: So let’s get to it. This is the Sweet Barnea.

Mueller: First thing you do is you warm it, ’cause you want those aromatics to come up. So you hold it in your hand.

Ryssdal: I know man. It’s a chilly day in L.A. — like 45 degrees outside.

Mueller: So put it in the palm of your hand and you cover it. We’ll say it’s done. It’s not quite done but we’ll say it’s done.

Ryssdal: So now what?

Mueller: No you take a little sip into your mouth and make a funky noise. It’s called: strippaggio.

Ryssdal: What?

Mueller: Strippaggio — in Italian. It means stripping — it’s a way of getting the aromatics up into the nasal passages.

Ryssdal: How many trips to Italy did you take while you were writing this book?

Mueller: I’ve been living there for the last 15 years. There you go.

Ryssdal: I don’t necessarily like the way it tastes and some got up into my, like, upper palate and it’s a little harsh.

Mueller: What that is — ’cause there are 200 minor components in the health of olive oil, one is called oleocanthal. It’s a natural ibuprofen, so it’s an anti-inflammatory.

Ryssdal: Not everything that is sold as extra olive oil or high quality olive oil is in fact what you think you’re getting.

Mueller: No, in some cases it’s outright, taking soybean oil, coloring it with chlorophyll, flavoring it with beta-carotene and selling it as extra virgin olive oil. Most of the supermarket fake extra virgins are made from very very poor quality olives that are then turned into oil — which smell bad and taste bad, and then they deodorize it — which is a refining process, and then they goose it with a little real extra virgin like this — to give it a little bit of character — and then they sell it as extra virgin.

Ryssdal: It’s a little like fake Louis Vuitton bags, in a way.

Mueller: Yeah, except we put it inside us.

Ryssdal: Good point.

Mueller: Those producer who are really doing a good job are spending a lot of money to harvest their fruit, to get it to mill on time, to do all this stuff. Quite often, the bad oil, you know, they let gravity harvest it. The fruit has been sitting around. They collect olives with things that look like street sweepers.

Ryssdal: Give me the numbers. I mean, how big is the good extra virgin olive oil market versus what we get in Safeway?

Mueller: In terms of consumption, this is really a tiny drop right now. But there’s a huge boom in interest of olive oil. I mean, 10 percent growth per year of consumption of olive oil. We’re the No. 3 consumer in the world.

Ryssdal: Behind the Italians and…?

Mueller: The Italians and the Spanish.

Ryssdal: All right, moving on.

Mueller: So we’re moving up the intensity to the big guns here.

Ryssdal: The big guns of olive oil.

Mueller: How about the ultra robust Piqual? Piqual is a classic Spanish cultivar.

Ryssdal: Tell me what a cultivar is?

Mueller: Cultivar is a type of olive.

Ryssdal: All right.

Mueller: Are you getting something different?

Ryssdal: Oh, man. Yeah.

Mueller: Here comes the pepper.

Ryssdal: [coughs] Wow. You know that thing where you get with wasabi where it goes up — back of your nose?

Mueller: Oh, yeah that’s right.

Ryssdal: I don’t know that that’s a selling point.

Mueller: Think: It’s good for you.

Ryssdal: Oliana in West Hollywood. Tom Mueller’s book is called “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.”

Mueller: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.

Ryssdal: Here’s Tom’s website, where he’s soon going to put together a list of shops all over the country where you can find really good olive oil. And here’s an excerpt from his book.

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