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The Black Market for (Extra-Virgin) Oil

Swirl, smell, slurp, swallow. Ever been to an olive oil tasting? It’s like wine tasting – except you don’t spit. And qualities like a grassy nose or a peppery finish aren’t inferior – they’re enviable.

If drinking the spicy oil isn’t enough of a sensorial experience, try starting at 8am. It’s not everyone’s proverbial cup of tea, and hardly the choice replacement for a morning espresso.

But there I was, seated in front of six pale emerald 1-ounce shots. Surrounded by at least 100 other olive oil enthusiasts at the early morning tasting in San Francisco, I silently thought, “Cheers: To a liquid breakfast!”

I had forgone both sleep and coffee that morning for two very important reasons. The tasting was a chance to hear top olive growers in the US, Italy, Argentina and Australia present their prize extra-virgin olive oils and taste alongside these experts. And moderating this impressive panel was none other than author and New Yorker contributor Tom Mueller.

Mueller has become something of a spokesperson in the world of extra-virgin olive oil after publishing a fascinating expose of fraud in the global market in the New Yorker in 2007. He recently released a longer form as “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” a book that inspired me to take olive oil a lot more seriously.

So what’s the big deal? Here’s a good example: In his book, Mueller cites that four out of 10 bottles labeled Italian olive oil aren’t. Aren’t what? Aren’t Italian, and aren’t necessarily olive oil.

This fraud is driven by several factors, aside from greed. True extra-virgin olive oil is expensive and hard to make. And as seasons become drier and hotter, olive yields increase. As oil becomes more commoditized, downward price pressure increases. Cost-cutting measures and economies of scale only go so far, and eventually something has to give: in this case, the product itself.

What are these Italian olive oils, if not what their labels say? The olives may have been grown in Spain, Turkey or North Africa, and pressed there before transported by tanker to Italy. And in a higher level of fraud, producers may mix olive with hazelnut oil or sunflower-seed oil, further degrading the substance in ways that would send Roman ancestors rolling in their graves.

As Mueller notably quotes in the New Yorker, the profits of adulterators, as told to him by one E.U. anti-fraud investigator, have at times been “comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks.”

Tasting with Mueller and the olive farmers on that early morning, I wasn’t worried about fraud – I was excited. There are still farmers whose oils are pure, and truly top quality extra-virgin. By buying oils bottled directly on the farm or tasted for annual certification by an independent organization such as the COOC, you can be sure the oils you get are pure, from their stated origin, and have those enticing spicy or fruity qualities that an extra-virgin oil should.

Follow my epicurean adventures on Twitter @KathrynAndersen