By FELICITY CLOAKE
Olive oil is graded into several different types for sale, the most common of which is extra virgin
Should you be, like many Brits, a convert to the cult of the extra virgin, a devotee of the Mediterranean magic potion that is olive oil, then I’m afraid I have some bad news. According to Tom Mueller, author of a new book on the subject, Extra Virginity: The Sublime And Scandalous World of Olive Oil, not all virgins are as pure as they might seem — and the world of olive oil is increasingly beset with fraud, smuggling and even poisoning.
The problem is that where there’s money, there’s crime, and olive oil is a very valuable commodity.
Olive oil doesn't come cheap - beware of anything under about £6 a litre
In July, Spanish police arrested the leader of a gang responsible for the theft of more than a million litres of the stuff, siphoned from storage tanks in Murcia, and shipped under false paperwork to Italy for sale.
Italian newspapers regularly report producers being robbed at gunpoint by drivers who arrive in the middle of the night with tankers.
A few years ago, Bertolli, the biggest olive oil brand in the world, suffered a multi-million euro theft at its plant near Milan — with sophisticated thieves using jammed security cameras, guns and lorries to secure their bounty.
Only virgin oils can claim the full range of health benefits attributed to olive oil, because the refining process strips lesser oils of its vitamins
Olive oil occupies a unique place in culinary history. Humans have been eating the fruits of these gnarled and tenacious trees for as long as the two of us have coexisted on this planet.
But since then, too, the olive oil industry has been dogged by fraud.
Clay tablets found at Ebla, in Syria, describe the activities of a 2,500 year-old anti-fraud squad who were responsible for ensuring the purity of oil, while the classical philosopher and doctor Galen complained of unscrupulous traders adulterating their olive oil with liquid lard to make it go further.
But ancient foodies were lucky — the Roman Empire had strict controls in place to minimise such double dealing.
Two thousand years later, olive oil regulation is back in the Dark Ages.