This is a website about drinking, so whenever I wander off topic and enter the realm of cuisine—a subject about which I know even less than wine—I do so at the peril of my long-suffering readers.
Technically however, I suppose that olive oil is a liquid, and honestly, ever since I read that the Mediterranean Diet has been linked to longer, healthier happier lives filled with job promotions, Skelta G-Force sports cars and dates with ‘It Girls’, I have taken to guzzling a half-gallon of olive oil per day.
Strictly Extra Virgin, of course, since it’s better for you.
For those of you who wanted to know but were afraid to ask, ‘Extra Virgin’ is a 1930’s term that first began appearing in Hollywood trade journals to describe celebutante Shirley Temple, and was later usurped by Walt Disney as a sexual metaphor in ‘The Little Mermaid’ (originally titled ‘Scent of a Woman’) since Ariel not only didn’t, she couldn’t. Fish do not have sex, of course—they do this weird onanistic spawning-season ritual too gross to go into.
In the context of olive oil, the first use of ‘Extra Virgin’ (or ‘E.V.O.O.’, as that chubby little morselette Rachael Ray—so desperate to get her crap on the table in under thirty minutes that she doesn’t have time to pronounce words—calls it) can be traced to Max Fleischer’s early Popeye shorts. Businessman first and artist second, Fleischer understood that if the Popeye, Olive and Bluto love triangle was ever resolved and one of these schmucks finally got to schtupp the anorexic shiksa, the cartoon’s popularity would go belly-up.
It was the Italians—never adverse to a little pilfering, whether protection money from Sam’s Produce, ten million from Lufthansa or Britannia below the Forth-Clyde line—who then snagged the label ‘Extra Virgen di Oliva’ to describe drupe fat.
The grade is regulated by an intergovernmental organization called the IOC, and to qualify, an oil must contain no more than 0.8% acidity and be judged ‘superior’ by a panel of tasters. Drop the ‘Extra’, and the oil is allowed a 2% acid content and the tasting panel must merely label it ‘good’.
Below the Virgin grade is not, as you might expect, ‘Easy, Plain-Looking Olive Oil With Father Issues’, but ‘Pure’—usually a blend of Virgin and refined production oils which are extracted through use of chemicals and filters. This is followed by neutral-tasting ‘Olive Oil’ of 1.5% acidity, then ‘Pomace Oil’, which is not legally permitted to wear the name ‘Olive Oil.’
Bringing up the rear is non-food grade Lampante, generally used in lamps, Fiat engines and movies starring Ilona Staller.
But how assured are we that we are getting the grade of olive oil that the label proclaims…?
Ay, There’s The Rub—And Where The System Falls Apart
In the first place, the United States does not subscribe to IOC standards, nor is it a member nation of this organization; the USDA uses a system first developed in 1948 before the IOC even existed, and refined (no pun) it in 2010. Whereas it is meant to regulate shippers and importers, the hard, cold-pressed facts seem to suggest that up to 70% of olive oils on the American market are frauds, and those claiming that they are ‘Imported From Italy’ actually contain oil from Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and Greece.
And it may not even be olive oil. Despite its reputation for purity and near sacrosanct salubriosity, olive oil turns out to pretty easy to fake. One batch in Spain contained poisonous rapeseed oil and killed 700 people, while with some regularity, what we buy as Extra Virgin winds up being flavored oil from Swedish turnips.
Blood from a stone is one thing, but raise your hand if you knew that you could get oil from a turnip?
‘Make Them An Offer They Can’t Refine’
Although we all recall that Don Corleone’s olive oil importing business was his front, raise your other hand if you knew that this side of the character was based on a genuine Wise Guy—Brooklyn crime boss Joe Profaci who used Mama Mia Importing Company to protect himself from federal tax evasion charges and so earned his nickname, ‘The Olive Oil King’.
Like Corleone, despite numerous attempts on his life, Profaci wound up dying of natural causes in 1962.
His countryman Domenico Ribatti fared less well. As the owner of Riolio, an Italian olive-oil producer based in Puglia, Ribatti routinely sold Turkish hazelnut oil and Argentinean sunflower-seed oil as Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil and became one of Italy’s most influential importers. By the early nineties, however, his extensive real-estate holdings and Swiss bank accounts had raised the eyebrows of the Guardia di Finanza’s military-police force, and by 1993, he was indicted for fraud against the EU. He plea-bargained a sentence of thirteen months and ultimately observed the code of omerta:
Leonardo Colavita, owner of Colavita Olive Oil Company, said, “Ribatti was a gentleman, because he didn’t name names. If he had named names, a lot of other folks in the trade would have gone to jail.”
Now, I’m not certain what they serve you as a bread dip in Italian prisons, but according to Amanda Knox, it ain’t Manni. This exclusive Tuscan IGP, the most expensive olive oil in Italy and only available in 25 restaurants worldwide, is made from the rare drupe olivastra seggianese grown at a specific elevations; it’s the current cult favorite of superstar chefs like Thomas Keller and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. How much will it set you back? About five times as much as uranium: $17 per ounce.
Still, if you’re willing to lay out that kind of scoot for an Extra Virgin, you might just be a able to interest The Little Mermaid in some illicit spawnography after all.