Bee Wilson looks into the murky world of olive oil.
‘Extra-virgin’ suggests great purity. It sounds even better in Italy, land of superlatives and Madonnas: extravergine. It rolls off the tongue like a prayer. So it’s a shame that much Italian extra-virgin olive oil – perfect oil from the first pressing of olives – is anything but.
Adulterated olive oil is now the biggest agricultural fraud in the EU. Some ‘extra-virgin Italian olive oil’ is actually shipped in from Tunisia or Libya. Other times, fraudsters will take bog-standard cooking olive oil (or even lamp-grade oil not legally designated for human consumption) and dose it with green chlorophyll to make it look suitably virginal.
In January Italy brought in a law to stop the fraud – from now on olive-oil producers are obliged to state on the label where the olives were grown and pressed. Few believe this will change anything. The incentives for fraud are too great. As one oil-law enforcer told the New Yorker last year, ‘Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks.’
The rising black market in Italian extra-virgin is a sign of the world’s unstoppable love affair with the green stuff. In 2006 sales of extra-virgin olive oil in Britain reached £71 million. Some buy it for health – the mono-unsaturated fat and polyphenols believed to help our hearts. Some buy it for taste – the peppery tang of a Tuscan oil, the almondy freshness of a Ligurian. But more, I suspect, buy it for a little whiff of sophistication.
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