Extra Virginity

By Tom Mueller | 0 Comments


By Tom Mueller


“How long have readers been waiting for a book like this? A century? A millennium?

Finally, the earth’s most poetic food has found its storyteller. Essential, smart, and ridiculously overdue.”


“Mueller builds a convincing case for olive oil as one of the most miraculous and versatile substances in all of nature … Passionately written yet clear-headed.”

USA Today

"Extra Virginity promises a journey into the ‘sublime and scandalous world of olive oil’ and delivers on that promise.  Readers of this book will never again look at olive oil in the same way."

New York Journal of Books

“Mueller reveals the brazen fraud in the olive oil industry and teaches readers how to sniff out the good stuff.”

New York Times

“The most delicious crime world exposé you can hope to read this month — or probably ever.”


“Extra Virginity" may make you reconsider the extra you're paying for ‘extra.’”

Wall Street Journal

“Mueller’s subject matter is so rich (if low in saturated fats)...”

Business Week

“The New Yorker writer does for his subject what Susan Orlean did for orchids.”

Columbus Dispatch

“A sparkling, stylish, sharply observed narrative that entertains and educates.”

Dallas Morning News


EXTRA VIRGINITY By Tom MuellerAmerica is the third-largest olive oil consumer in the world, but that familiar glass bottle that’s a staple of so many U.S. pantries holds a shocking secret.

Odds are that most, if not all, of the oils marked “extra virgin” in your local supermarket are imposters, harlots masquerading in virgins’ clothing.

As a consequence, consumers are robbed of the health benefits associated with high-quality, antioxidant-rich real extra virgin olive oil, which is the active ingredient of the Mediterranean diet, and exhibits remarkable therapeutic properties against conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.

How do we differentiate between the authentic and the phony? And how could this kind of food fraud become so rampant?

Offering a revelatory look at the rich, fascinating, and often contradictory world of olive oil production and consumption, Tom Mueller investigates the enigmatic substance and the billion dollar global industry that produces it in EXTRA VIRGINITY: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil [W. W. Norton & Company; December 5, 2011; $25.95 hardcover].

A timely, masterfully executed exploration, mingling history, science, and exposé, that expands on Mueller’s lauded August 2007 New Yorker article, “Letter from Italy: Slippery Business,” this book is a riveting portrait of the traditions, politics, geography, current affairs, key figures, and culinary movements that shape today’s olive oil industry. Mueller introduces honest artisan producers, from Australia to Italy to California, who create magnificent oils but struggle to make ends meet in a market awash with fraud; criminals making millions off fraudulent oils; the contemporary scientists investigating oil’s diverse chemical properties and health benefits; and a fascinating cast of chefs, food activists, bureaucrats, and priests, all of whom are obsessed with olive oil.

EXTRA VIRGINITY By Tom Mueller Among myriad eye-opening stories, EXTRA VIRGINITY reveals that records of inspections against fraudulent practice in the olive oil trade date back to as early as the twenty-fourth century BC. The enduring presence of trickery in olive oil production attests to this commodity’s extraordinary importance to humanity.

Throughout history, olive oil has been used not just as a foodstuff but also in religious rituals, cosmetics and perfumes, aphrodisiacs and sexual aids; and as fuel, balm, and spiritual essence, celebrated by the likes of Sophocles and Martial, Jesus and Muhammad.

Along with its countless applications, olive oil also has a rigorous quality standard. It is the only product for which a taste test is actually part of the legal definition of authenticity and quality. Mueller takes the reader to a modern laboratory, where a trained team olive oil tasters slurp away, looking for official taste flaws, such as musty, fusty, rancid, and grubby, and describing positive attributes of well-crafted oils, such as artichoke, fresh-cut grass, green tomato, or kiwi.

Yet despite the rigor and meticulousness of this rating system, there is still no assurance that the sticker on any given bottle of olive oil reflects the content. In fact, as Mueller shows, fake oil is just the glistening tip of a vast iceberg of food fraud.  The enormous popularity of the “Made in Italy” label worldwide makes it an appetizing target for food fraudsters, who earn an estimated $80 billion a year selling counterfeit or adulterated faux-Italian foods.

Since price competition in the food industry is fierce, companies are often willing to buy their raw materials from dubious sources, even at prices so low they suggest that the foods are fake. Added to this are the challenges inherent in testing and policing a massive, far-flung, internationalized food and agriculture sector rife with companies whose chemical knowledge and expertise far outstrip those of the investigators. In a market such as this, the honest olive oil producer faces almost insurmountable challenges. According to Mueller, unless something is done within the next few years to halt olive oil crime, the ancient and storied tradition of olive oil manufacturing will come to an end.

Luckily, awareness is spreading and a revolution is afoot in olive oil quality, particularly in the New World, where skilled artisanal growers and oil competitions abound. For readers interested in joining the movement, EXTRA VIRGINITY offers a wealth of resources, including:

  • A glossary of olive oil terminology
  • Advice on choosing a quality oil
  • Tips on which oil types to pair with different foods
  • An extensive list of Web sites for further information
  • as the go-to place on the web for olive oil news and a regularly-updated guide to the best oils from each year’s harvest 

Both a terrifying window onto the effects of globalization of the food industry in an age of lax regulation, and an eye-opening call to action, EXTRA VIRGINITY proves that becoming more educated about quality extra virgin olive oil can be one of life’s singular pleasures. 

Extra Virginity - Tom MuellerAbout the Author:

Tom Mueller writes for The New Yorker and other publications. He lives in a medieval stone farmhouse surrounded by olive groves in the Ligurian countryside outside of Genoa, Italy.

Title: EXTRA VIRGINITY: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil

Author: Tom Mueller

Pub Date: December 5, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-393-07021-7

Price: $25.95 hardcover

Where to Buy

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