Olive oil expert Tom Mueller who lives in Italy, has recently brought out a book called Extra Virginity.
In ancient Greek society, Mueller notes, olive oil was used as “fuel, skin lotion, contraceptive, detergent, preservative, pesticide, perfume, and adornment, as well as a cure for heart ailments, stomach aches, hair loss, flatulence, and excessive perspiration.”
So valuable was this oil in antiquity that it further functioned as a sort of currency, bestowed upon victorious athletes in lieu of prize money.
The jar of olive oil on a Roman table was a sign of civilization above the crude ways of the barbarians.
Unfortunately, a product whose value soars because of its culinary importance and healthy properties attracts the attentions of greedy crooks.
Mueller exposes rampant fraud in the industry and quotes an Italian producer who suggests that 50 per cent of the olive oil sold in America is, to some degree, fraudulent.
Shady dealers along the supply chain frequently adulterate olive oil with low-grade vegetable oils and add artificial colouring.
I don’t claim to have a trained palate to distinguish high-quality olive oil and I confess to being one of the wimps who prefer mild, buttery-flavoured olive oil over the highest quality product which has a taste so peppery it can make you cough.
In fact, I love the taste of butter (just ask any Scot what shortbread should taste of) and usually combine butter and olive oil for mushrooms or oven fries.
I came fairly late to appreciation of olive oil, being initially a frugal cook, dismayed by the thought of expensive ingredients.
Over the years, I have trained myself to remember that what we saved by not buying junk foods could be spent on what I used to regard as luxuries but now keep as staples in our kitchen. And in my camping days I would take along small bottles of olive oil and lemon juice as essential condiments.
I never did figure out the difference between rapeseed, canola, safflower or sunflower oils, so it has been a relief to bypass the lot and use a mild olive oil for all purposes, especially to prepare that most delectable of French emulsions, mayonnaise.
So, how do we protect ourselves from olive oil fraud?
If we want quality we have to pay for the extra care and work that provides a premium product. So, if it’s cheap, it probably will lack the healthy qualities of the real thing.
At present I have easy access to oil from Palestinian olive groves imported by Global Village, so I can combine my need for quality olive oil with commitment to fair trade with people who are in sore need of help.
Marjorie Stewart is board chairwoman of the Foodshare Society and president of the multi-stakeholder co-op, Heritage Foodservice. She can be reached at: email@example.com.