Book review: Extra Virginity

Tom Mueller examines the underworld of olive oil and the often filthy business dealings surrounding it.


(Photo: Anna Lisa Sang)

EXTRA VIRGINITY: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil
Tom Mueller

One August day in 1991, a tanker docked at the Turkish port of Ordu and took on nearly 2,000 tonnes of hazelnut oil. After wandering the seas for a month and a half, the same tanker docked at a port on the heel of Italy’s boot and offloaded what the ship’s documents claimed was Greek olive oil. With the complicity of corrupt authorities, the oil was then shipped to a refinery belonging to Riolio, a company owned by Domenica Ribatti, where it was leavened with actual olive oil, then packaged and sold to customers as the real thing.

Ribatti was just one trader among many getting rich by sullying the reputation of a liquid valued in part by its purity. At least, that’s how the Italian authorities tell the story. Ribatti goes to profane lengths to profess his innocence in the new book by New Yorker contributor Mueller, a history of olive oil and the often filthy business dealings surrounding it. Formerly used as currency—olive oil was sometimes awarded to victorious athletes in ancient Greece in lieu of coin—it has finally achieved the standing of a luxury good in North America, with dedicated boutiques now offering pricey obscure brands. And as is so often the case with luxury goods, the business around it is far less savoury than the product.