These careful records were intended to prevent the siphoning off of oil en route, or the substitution of an inferior product. Two diametrically opposed trends exist in the olive-oil business.
Olive-oil fraud continues today, though modern governments are often less thorough and effective than the Romans at preventing it. In the first, toward high-quality olive oil, new milling technologies—stainless steel mills, high-speed centrifuges, temperature- and oxygen-controlled storage tanks—are making it possible to produce the best extra-virgin olive oils in history: fresh, complex, and every bit as varied as wine varietals.
In the end, I believe that increasing discernment and quality-consciousness on the part of North American consumers will drive a quality revolution in American olive oil, similar to that which has already occurred in wine, coffee, microbrew beer, artisanal cheeses, etc., which will pass along increasing profits to top-quality producers, allowing them to survive and even prosper.
I’d been living in Italy for about ten years when I happened to see footage of olive farmers blockading the ports of Bari and Monopoli, in southern Puglia, with their tractors, in protest of what they said were imports of vegetable oils from elsewhere in the Mediterranean that were being illegally turned into olive oil by unscrupulous olive-oil producers and merchants.
This caught my eye, and when I spoke with my editor at a short time later I suggested a story on olive oil.
Mueller has expanded the scope of his article’s research with his recent book “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” which focusses on the contamination of olive oil not only by seed oils but by the misuse of the label “extra virgin” on olive oils that don’t meet that designation’s standards.
Mueller recently took the time to answer questions on olive oil and the risks involved in its trade; an edited version of the exchange appears below.
During the reporting for the story, I immersed myself in the subject, discovering a historic, cultural, religious, anthropological, and—yes—criminal depth to olive oil that seemed to deserve fuller treatment in a book. The earliest written mention of olive oil, on cuneiform tablets at Ebla in the twenty-fourth century B.
C., describes teams of inspectors who toured olive mills on behalf of the king, looking for fraudulent practices.
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At Monte Testaccio, the Romans stored twenty-five million amphorae that held 1.75 billion liters of olive oil.
Many amphora fragments bear , stamped inscriptions or handwritten notes in black or red ink that record information such as the locality where the oil was produced, the name of the producer, the weight and quality of the oil when the amphora was sealed, and the name of the merchant who imported it, the name of the imperial functionary who confirmed this information when the amphora was reopened at its destination in Rome, and so on. officials tell me their resources are far too limited, and the list of responsibilities far too long, to police the olive-oil trade.
That said, from a purely taste point of view, the olive oil “Crudo” made by the Schiralli family in Bitetto, Puglia, and “Balduccio” made by Andreas März near Pistoia, Tuscany, are two of my very favorites.