Wednesday, December 28, 2011

by Tom Mueller

In order for olive oil to have an extra virgin grade, it must be fruity, bitter and peppery, have a pleasant taste, and leave a clean feeling in the mouth. It can't be rancid, vinegary, greasy, or smelly. Unfortunately, most of what is on the supermarket shelves currently is not extra virgin (even though it's marked that way right on the bottle) but adulterated oil. Any flaws and it's classed as lampaste which means that it can only legally be sold as fuel. Fake olive oils are worldwide (many are not even made with olives) and the United States sells tons of it.
Some of the scams are taking soybean or canola oil, dyeing it green, adding beta-carotene for flavor and then putting it in tins or bottles with Italian flags across the front of it and cutesy names of fictitious producers. Most of this fraud is not regulated so it's rampant.
There are still, fortunately, artisan oil producers who mill (press) their own olives using ancient traditions where making excellent, superior extra virgin olive oil has been done in their family for generations. These are the people where you would buy your oil from. Of course, the majority of us don't live near a mill so the next best thing is to find a seller who has oil in bulk rather than in bottles or tins (decay sets in, immediately, as soon as oil is encased) and stores it in containers that are temperature-controlled. If you can find a store where you can taste olive oils before purchasing them and find out where they came from and how they were made, so much the better.
Tom Mueller has written quite an astonishing book. Besides writing about the ever present corruption, he relates the oil's history in regards to health (it's high in anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory); it's use in soaps, salves and creams; how Olympiads would slather their bodies to give them more energy; even textiles, leather and yarn were infused with oil.
At the end of the book, there's a Glossary and an Appendix on how to choose good oil and a large range of websites on all kinds of information that have to do with extra virgin olive oil, such as: research centers, olive associations, where to buy the best oils, olive oil chemistry and tasting, etc.
Mueller didn't miss a thing and it's quite comprehensive. Some great trivia is interspersed, too. If you're crazy about olive oil, this would be a good book to own. It's definitely an eye-opener.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

by Robert K. Massie

She was the only female that ever ascended to the Russian throne. Considered to be on par with Peter the Great, Catherine, in her reign of thirty-five years, accomplished a staggering amount of feats.
Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka von Anhalt-Zerbst to a minor noble family, she certainly was not favored. All of the attention was centered on her younger brother. This would change when she became an adolescent. Suddenly she's marriage material and that was fine by Sophia. She wanted to get away from her dominant mother and rise above her. When Sophia turned fourteen, a letter arrived from St. Petersburg written by Empress Elizabeth (the younger daughter of Peter the Great) inviting both mother and daughter to the court and to introduce Sophia to Peter, Elizabeth's nephew. Two years later, Sophia (now Catherine after she converted from her Lutheran faith to the Orthodox Church) and Peter married. Now her obligation was to produce an heir. For nine years nothing happened because Peter was a total mess psychologically and physically. It wasn't until Catherine took a lover (there would be a total of twelve) that she finally felt fulfilled. These men gave her companionship, (they would be called "favorites"), passion, and love. Even though her private life was considered scandalous, what she presented to the public was brilliance, a quick wit, astuteness, fairness and power.
Catherine the Great was quite a remarkable woman. She dealt with rebellion, foreign wars, violence and at the same time tried to ameliorate the situation with serfdom and to help the Russian people live better. Catherine was an avid reader and was influenced heavily by Enlightenment philosophers such as Montesquieu. She used his theories and others during her rule. Catherine also loved art and created quite a collection; brought literature, sculpture, education, medicine, architecture (many buildings and magnificent structures were built) to Russia; opened up the Black Sea to expand the ports for trade and commerce. She left quite a legacy.
Robert Massie, without a doubt, really knows how to present Russian history in an enjoyable format. There's so much information (the book took him eight years to write) but what you read is absolutely fascinating. It's quite hefty at 574 pages which does not include the Notes and the Index. There are several pages in color of Catherine, Peter, and Elizabeth.
The last time I read anything by Massie was when I was in high school and that was his superb Nicholas and Alexandra.
He has done justice, again, with Catherine the Great.
Highly recommended.