Tom Mueller is an aficionado of fine extra virgin olive oil as well as a hard-hitting investigative journalist. His new book, Extra Virginity (W.W. Norton & Co., 2012), details the fraud that’s causing turmoil in the olive oil business. The revelations have caused a stir. When he’s not digging up dirt as a journalist, Mueller likes to sit down with a good bottle of olive oil and drizzle it over a good steak, say, or on ice cream.
We caught up recently with Mueller to ask him about the olive oil business and his love for olive oil. What follows is the second of a two-part Q&A, based on questions submitted by our Facebook fans. (Click here to see the first installment.)
Did you expect your book to make as much splash as it has?
I really didn’t. It’s heartening to see the level of interest. Olive oil does have all the numbers to be the next home run food after wine, craft beer, artisanal cheese, dark chocolate, and fine sea salts. Unfortunately with olive oil, at the moment, there’s so much murk and so much confusion.
Is there an olive oil mafia?
The term “mafia” with a small “m” is used in Italian all the time, not for Cosa Nostra but for people who are organized in a secretive, usually criminal fashion. In the case of olive oil today it’s not organized crime – not like characters from The Godfather, with scars across their cheek – but there are organized criminals. Back in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, mafia figures in America did use olive oil import businesses as fronts for their criminal activities. But today that’s not really the case.
What’s the best olive oil to use on the market today and why?
Much like wine, it really depends on what you’re going to use the oil for. There are 700-plus different kinds of olives and thousands of different oils – some big bodied and some milder. The choice of the right oil depends on the specific dishes you’re going to be using with it. (Click here to see blog post about pairing foods with olive oils.)
As somebody who lives in Italy, what do you think of California’s extra virgin olive oil?
Some of the best oils I’ve ever had were made in California. Great producers everywhere – in the Old World as well as the New World – are dealing with the same challenges: Use healthy fruit, pick and crush it quickly, store it properly in an oxygen-free environment, and get their consumers to consume it quickly.
How do you like to use extra virgin olive oil at home?
I like to reinvent American comfort foods with olive oil. I think a baked potato with olive oil instead of butter is incredible. Olive oil on a steak as steak sauce enhances the flavor and the texture of the meat. A full-bodied olive oil over vanilla ice cream creates a counter-point to the ice cream’s sweetness. (Click here to see our February eNewsletter showcasing comfort food.)
Your friends at California Olive Ranch