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OOJ Blog

Steven’s thoughts on olive oil, vinegars, food and travel.

THE SMEAR

I know well many millers and farmers and grove owners who are olive oil people. This is just as I know many cheesemakers in Europe and North America. My knowledge and time spent with these folks is the joy of my career, definitely the most wonderful part of it.

As regards some of them it took several visits to forge a bond; others became my friends right from the get-go. Certainly common interests — cheese, olives, olive oil — make it easy to want to like each other. And doubtless the fact that my prospective new friends had ‘doing business’ in mind. But not necessarily. I find that anyone with an ardent passion for what they do will respond to someone such as myself (who displays an ardent admiration for what they do). And in this case I am referring to growing olives that result in olive oil, just as I admired so many cheesemakers.

So what I am clumsily trying to establish here is that I know a lot of olive oil people who are simply the best people you could ever want to know. I’m talking about people who have such a passion and commitment to what they do, usually what their parents and indeed their grandparents and generations before, did, that the notion of fraudulent olive oil is as foreign to them as the moons of Neptune.

It simply would never occur to them.

You have doubtless heard or read about tainted, seed oil-blended (or worse), fake extra-virgin olive oil being sold in America. A few of the biggest producers — Europe-based, global-interest, multi-national food conglomerates —  whose olive oil brands are found in supermarkets across the country — have been caught red-handed having packed olive oil that was absolutely fraudulent. I refer to cheap olive oil no decent cook or informed consumer would ever allow in their shopping cart and kitchen. These companies were prosecuted and found guilty, and paid a huge price for their perfidy, and they well deserved it. They were Greek men, Italian men, Turkish, Algerian, Moroccan. Nary a woman. They were men who are crooks. 

There are crooks in every endeavor, every walk of life, every business.

You surely know better than to shop at bottom-feeding supermarket chains. You further surely reject those brands found in every crummy supermarket that couldn’t care less about the quality of the foods sold there. So this really doesn’t concern us then, I suppose.

WRONG.

It mightily concerns us.

You see, this widely reported malfeasance was seen as a huge opportunity for some other producers of olive oil. It was a classic case of ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’.

What a great time some of the California and Australian olive oil producers have had lately! They have clamped their canines down on Mediterranean Basin-origin olive oil as a whole entity (which does not exist! Olive oils are as different from each other as wines or people!) in order to castigate it, ridicule and debase it, create distrust and utterly libel it, all in a fraudulent attempt to capture a market share, wrest it away from Mediterranean Basin olive oil. A market share stolen, unearned and shamelessly cashed in.

It is this practice that is fraudulent. 

A few well-placed, virtually viral, widely reported upon articles and essays about fake extra-virgin olive oil had the effect of consumers looking gimlet-eyed at not just European olive oil, but at ALL olive oil. These ill-researched essays and articles, some of them, were literally commissioned by groups that had an ax to grind. These inflammatory words were written by writers who didn’t just not do their homework, their due diligence, but were driven by an economic interest to take a side that was as phony as the olive oil they decried. “But the olive oil WAS phony! You admit it, Steven!”  

If you found yourself at home with a bottle of olive oil that had no fragrance, no spice, tasted stale, looked limpid, you should blame no one but yourself. How could you be so careless? It’s hardly rocket science to discern, to make an immediate judgment, of an olive oil in your hand that probably or definitely isn’t worthy of you.

One of the joys of my time behind a retail counter was educating people on how to shop. As I learned, I tried to teach. It was fun for me and for my customers, they loved walking up to any cheese counter and not feeling intimidated!

But a lot of people are incapable of being discerning shoppers. They buy the stale oil and use it up and maybe even develop a taste for it.   

This doesn’t in any way excuse the Greek men and Italian men who took advantage of them. My point is that the Mediterranean Basin — Greece, Turkey, France, Italy, Spain, Catalonia, etc. — is home to many of the finest people in the world who have been working their groves and creating exquisite olive oils for generations, and the notion of fraud is totally foreign to them. It is something that simply never would occur to them.

So they have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of people who decided they deserved a bigger market share.

Tom Mueller’s book, EXTRA VIRGINITY, came out to considerable fanfare a few years ago. In it, Mr. Mueller devoted a great portion of his well-written book to the outrage of phony olive oil. It was well-researched and factual, but my enormous quarrel with it is as how it was so one-sided, and curiously omitted the facts about the ‘other’ side. I put ‘other’ in quotes because the two sides were made up. There really are no ‘sides’. The apparent good guys according to Tom Mueller are the Californians. No way, he reports, that a California olive oil producer would ever market fraudulent olive oil. NOOOO, he intoned. That domain is owned by the Europeans. They are the crowd you must beware of, while failing to suggest that maybe some of those nice Europeans who export olive oil you can trust, are many — not just many, but literally ALL of the serious olive oil producers who may have just been victimized by this very book written by him.

Tom Mueller impressed me, and I am the first to tell you he may be just as good a guy as I think he is. We had a back-and-forth via email and telephone, and I was pretty strident in my criticism of his book. I roughed him up pretty good, and I must say he took it like a man. He downright admitted that perhaps he had been a bit unfair to the wonderful people I know so well. 

A bit unfair is putting it mildly.

If you take anything away from having read this long-winded diatribe, and I pray that you did read this far, is that you must understand that so much of what you read about olive oil on the internet is absolute nonsense. I would further suggest that much of what you read on the internet about ANY subject should be subject to doubt. Your doubt. 

And so much of what you’ve read, or will read, ANYWHERE, about olive oil is also balderdash — pap written by people who have no knowledge of olive oil whatsoever. They are merely regurgitating misinformation they acquired from some other source, some boob who had an ax to grind, a phony issue that makes them appear incisive, noble. 

It takes huge piles of money to make perfect olive oil. Nobody with a lot of money wrapped up in a foodstuff as capricious and difficult as olives and olive oil, an investment in a foodstuff they love, is going to jeopardize the effort and result by messing with it, by tainting it. And nobody who has worked the family farm longer than memory knows, would consider degrading their most precious product.

Steven Jenkins