Saturday, September 15, 2012

Artichokes for Arabs? Mangia!

Now, you might think this is condescending, but far from it. Like sending McDonald's to Moscow, burgers to Beijing, or Twinkies to Tokyo, it's called new business development or market expansion.

In this case, an Italian company called Montalbano Agroalimentare, based in the heart of Tuscany some 20 miles from Florence, markets a range of minimally processed, locally grown foods (vegetable sauces, marinated mushrooms, olives, artichoke hearts, bruschetta toppings, and so on), most of them packed in transparent, 7-ounce glass jars.

To help expand their sales to new markets, they hired a communications agency called Neom, which kept Montalbano's "look" but created an essentially new brand for the Arabic market. Along the way, certification by Halal Italy and the Halal Internationa Autority. And a new, more international slogan: "Flavors of Rome" to emphasize the high value of Italian luxury goods.

This isn't as farfetched as it sounds: southern Italy is a close neighbor of northern Africa; from Sicily, Tunis is closer than Naples. We'll keep you posted on the results of their work.

(Parenthetically: Neom, with four offices across northern Italy, is the same agency that handles two other projects that have caught our attention: Planett (Private Luxury Accommodation Network, mostly Venice) and its related concept, Private Italy (luxury villas throughout Italy). We wrote about them last year after Planett hosted a workshop for tour operators and journalists.)

Americans tend to think of the world as "us" and "them." but this project illustrates that "they" do most of their business with each other. We have much less influence with "them" than we think, and none at all when it comes to deciding that upscale shops in the Arab world might want to stock Tuscan artichoke hearts for their increasingly adventurous customers.

Meanwhile, a Miami chain, Pizza Rustica, has just announced an expansion into the Middle East, partnering with an outfit called Kuwait International Franchise Co. to open pizza-by-the-slice stores in Kuwait and Bahrain.

This is worth remembering because the US State Department has just launched a high-profile initiative, in cooperation with the James Beard Foundation, to convince the world that there's more to American food than Mickey D. Celebrity chefs Maria Hines of Tilth and Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita are the Washington State delegates. Not everyone thinks this "foodie diplomacy" is such a good idea; my own sense is that we should be listening to the rest of the world, instead of always talking with our mouths full.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Heading to Franciacorta

Will be here by Sunday. Except this picture was shot in December. More leaves on the vines by now, one hopes.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Chianti Classico: Italian reserve

Tommaso Marrocchesi Marzi, dapper in a three-piece, pin-striped suit, is pouring his wines at the Cheese Cellar, at the foot of the Space Needle. He and his brother, Federico, are the fifth generation of the family-owned Tenuta di Bibbiano estate in the Chianti Classico hills of Tuscany, midway between Florence and Siena.

It's a 500-acre estate in the rolling hills of Tuscany, full of olive trees and vineyards. Young Tommaso, with a degree in business and economics, has been in charge for the past 12 years.

From the 50 vineyard acres in production, Bibbiano produces roughly 10,000 cases of wine, the best part being about 15,000 bottles a year of Chianti Classico Riserva from the vineyard called Vigna del Capannino. It's named for the family's shooting blinds on the steep hillside; grandpa, it seems, liked to bang away at pigeons.

The wines are what you'd expect of long-established Chianti Classico vines: the rich, plummy flavors of Sangiovese Grosso grapes, 16 months of oak aging, a textbook Chianti Classico. What's unexpected is the price: $28. It could be the best bargain in Seattle.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Godfather moves on. Ciao, Luciano!

It was mid-morning on a Tuesday, and Luciano Bardinelli had just lit his first cigar of the day, On Sunday, Mother's Day, he'd served a full house; on Monday, he'd packed up his files and belongings. After a lifetime as an owner, headwaiter, manager, occasional line cook, waiter, busboy, Luciano was not going to work in one of his own restaurants. "My first day as a free man."

Luciano (no one calls him Signor Bardinelli for long) had come to Seattle exactly 30 years ago, in 1982. There was no Tom Douglas, no Ethan Stowell. There were no websites to chronicle the comings and goings of platoons of energetic young chefs, no, no Voracious, no ChowHound.

Born on the shores of Lago Maggiore, in the northern Italian Alps, Luciano had already managed exclusive restaurants and private clubs in Las Vegas and the Hollywood Hills. One fine autumn day in 1981 he happened to pay a call on a friend in Seattle, and found that the landscape of red and yellow leaves reminded him of home. Within months, he had left the desert and driven to Seattle, the radio of his U-Haul tuned to the Kentucky Derby. ("The winner was a long shot named Gato del Sol," he recalls.)

Luciano became the Godfather to Seattle's Italian restaurant renaissance. He was not a chef by training or temperament; his strong suit was Armani (topped these days by a full head of white hair), served with an urbane elegance. French was the cuisine of prestige back then, but Settebello, his first Seattle restaurant, on Capitol Hill was decidedly Italian. Not low-brow, Spaghetti House meatballs-in-red-sauce but classy, suave northern Italian: osso buco, agnolotti stuffed with veal, tiramisu. In the course of its ten-year run, it changed the way Seattle thought about food--not just Italian food, but restaurant food in general.

One of his cooks was Scott Carsberg, who'd fallen in love with Italian food, and went on to start Lampreia and Bisato; he's the exception: a chef who really knows and understands Italian cooking. A mutual friend says, "Luciano has a point when he says that these Americans go to Italy for three months and think they know how to make pasta and cook Italian food. The soba masters in Japan study the art of making noodles for 15 years, and then spend the next 30 perfecting it. You can't just order it frozen from California." In an interview for the Seattle Times five years ago, Carsberg returned the compliment: "Luciano was the best front man in the Italian genre. He brought modern Italian cuisine to Seattle."

Vancouver, BC, had a similarly gregarious Italian promoter named Umberto Menghi, who'd started building a restaurant empire ten years earlier. Word got around, and pretty soon Umberto sent down his associate, Carmine Smeraldo, to open an outpost in Pioneer Square. Umberto withdrew within a couple of years but Carmine remained; he and Luciano became best friends.

"Carmine and I were the same age. We were like brothers," Luciano told me this week. "After he died in January, I thought, it's time to scale down and do something else." (There's a third "brother," Raffaele Calise, who's still working at Picolino's in Ballard.)

What Luciano has been doing for three decades, of course, was opening and running restaurants. A string of them after Settebello: Stresa, Sans Souci, Italianissimo, among others. Sometimes he'd become a minority partner and help out a friend; sometimes he'd make bad bets on a location or a concept; sometimes he'd become distracted by marital problems. His last place, Ristorante Luciano, had a great location, Bellevue Square; a landlord, Kemper Freeman, with a reputation for being hard-nosed; and a clientele of Yelpers quick to complain about high prices and a mis-fired dish.

"I owed a lot of money, but Mr. Freeman released me. And he gave me a going-away party. He paid for 60-70 people." In attendance: Eastsiders who'd been coming to the restaurant regularly, along with a few Seattle diners who'd remained loyal.

At Bellevue Square, a new tenant is already lined up: Spice Route Cuisine, a mid-market Indian restaurant, currently at Crossroads. As for Luciano, after taking some time off for a trip back to Italy, he'll resettle in Morro Bay, Calif., where he has his eye on a little house (the Beach House Bistro) overlooking the Pacific. "Twenty seats, retired people who come in two-three times a week. I'll go to the market for produce and fish and fix a fresh menu every day." He hopes to be open by mid-summer.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Glamor on the Mediterranean

Ya gotta hand it to the Italians: no sooner do they crash a fancy boat but they get their folks to buy another one. You remember the Costa Concordia, no doubt. The house arrest of the skipper, Francesco Schettino, was just reconfirmed by a magistrate, while the investigation into crew members and company execs drags on. But that didn't stop the Costa Crosciere line (owned by Carnival Cruises, in case you forgot) from launching a fancy new replacement, the Costa Fascinosa, in Venice this morning. The president of the company told well-wishers that bookings are back to normal. The Fascinosa is every bit as large and luxurious (114,500 gross tons, 3,780 passengers) as its ill-fated class-mate, the Concordia.

Italy's tourism minister, Piero Gnudi, was on hand for the launch. He said that tourism can help Italy create 1.6 million jobs over the next decade. "In Italy we have many forms of tourism, and we need to strengthen them all," he said. "In recent years we have made the mistake of considering tourism as the Cinderella of the economy. We have invested little and lost market share."

Sounds like what I was saying on Crosscut as well as this very blog months and months ago.

Can you imagine what 1.6 million new jobs would mean for Italy, a country that can't even meet the Social Security payments for its own citizens? At least the Fincantiere shipyard in the northern Adriatic got 18 months of work out of the 500-million-euro ship's construction. I'm just a little wobbly on the name, selected by plebiscite on the company's website: Fascinosa (Fascinating, Glamorous) beat out Favoloso (Fabulous). My vote went for Inaffondabile (Unsinkable).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Moscato Rosa: Not self-pollinated

The gent holding the bottle is Andi Punter, export manager for Franz Haas, a winery that's been in business since 1881. The Haas family has about 125 acres in a tiny region of northern Italy called Alto Adige, which grows barely one percent of Italy's wine.

The limited supply didn't deter the region's consortium of wine producers from holding a seminar and tasting in Seattle last week, however.

Alto Adige, on Italy's border with Austria, is known also as Süd Tirol; German is one of its official languages. The Adige river forms a deep and wide valley (good land for apple trees), while the surrounding hillsides are covered in steep Alpine forests and about 30,000 acres of vineyards (roughly comparable to Washington State, though at much higher elevations). The altitude guarantees 300 days of warm sunshine, while the northerly latitude produces sharp differences between daytime high temperatures and nighttime lows (again, comparable to Washington).

Annual wine production, by 15 coöps and over 100 independent growers, hovers around 9 million gallons (45 million bottles), a third of which is exported, mostly to neighboring Germany and Switzerland, though the United States does import a goodly amount. The most widely planted white varieties are internationally known standbys pinot grigio, gewurztraminer, chardonnay and pinot blanc; the two leading reds, on the other hand, are indigenous: schiava and lagrein, followed by pinot noir, merlot and cabernet.

Just one third of one percent of the Alto Adige's grapes are a variety called moscato rosa, and that's what's in the Franz Haas bottle. The backstory is fascinating. Vinifera vines are hardy and resourceful plants; their roots will burrow through bedrock to reach moisture, their DNA programs them to produce vast numbers of offspring (the seeds inside the grapes). What we think of as viticulture is basically the grower's attempt to curb and channel the plant's reproductive enthusiasm into a limited number of grapes. First, though, the stamens of the budding fruit must be pollinated. Vinifera plants are normally self-pollinating, but the Alpine winds in the Alto Adige overpower the buds of moscato rosa. Instead, as Andi Punter explained to me, the growers have to wait for bees to visit the vineyards.

Is that why the Franz Haas moscato rosa has aromas of roses? Cloves, too! More so here than elsewhere (Alsace, Portugal, Sicily) where the grape is used to make sparkling pink wines that have a candied flavor. In any event, there's not that much moscato rosa to begin with; yields are very low compared to other varieties. It's not a late harvest or a passito, it's just a remarkable wine. The Franz Haas bottling is regularly awarded the coveted "Tre Bichieri" rating by Italy's benchmark Gambero Rosso wine guide. The half bottle sells for $49

One final note: tourism is a huge draw for this region, which counts 250,000 hotel beds and another 400,000 accommodations in guest houses and the like. People come for the skiing in winter, the hiking in summer, the spectacular scenery year-round. They eat the local speck, they drink the local wine, they go home happy

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sport's Reuben Grows Up

Okay, it's not Italian. But it is a sandwich, a panino, okay.

What a cute baby, the one on the left! But a baby after all. Young Reuben, back in August of 2005, already had many of the classic traits: caraway rye, Swiss cheese, pleasantly tangy sauerkraut, a "special sauce" that was more mayo than thousand-island, accompanied by a dill pickle. On the right, a look at that same sandwich earlier this week. Can you see the difference?

A first glance, the difference is obvious: more meat, much more. It's corned beef that Sport buys from a 95-year-old company in San Francisco, Columbus Meats. Half a pound of thin-sliced meat & trimmings (sauerkraut, cheese, "special sauce") on grilled, thick-cut rye bread. And don't forget the kosher dill.
Sidebar: the difference between pastrami and corned beef. These days, both are made from brisket, the former smoked, the latter brined. The distinctions get blurry. Pastrami ideally is made from a cut called "navel" (also known as "plate") and is generally fattier. But this is a field--Jewish deli meats of New York and "smoked meat" of Montreal--that one enters with trepidation. If you substitute pastrami for corned beef, it's no longer a Reuben but a Rachel. (Huh?)

"The sandwich [in the 2005 picture] was proably just made incorrectly," restaurant owner John Howie writes in an email. (Now he tells me.) Full Reuben is now $14, a modest increase from $11.95 seven years ago.

Did I mention that all this is at Sport, across from the Space Needle? There's a flatscreen TV at every booth, and it's okay to bring the kiddies. The GM these days is none other than owner John Howie's son, Eric.

Sport Restaurant & Bar, 140 4th Avenue N., Seattle, 206-404-7767   Sport Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Contanti is king

Valentino on Milan's Via Montenapoleone, hallowed ground for high fashion
Mi fai sconto? you ask the vendor. Can you give me a discount? Pago contanti, I'll pay cash.

Now, this time-honored Italian tradition doesn't work where prices are clearly stated and there's nothing for merchant to gain by dropping the public price. But when it's a designer dress, or a piece of designer jewelry, then it's a different story. No credit card fees, nothing to declare.

Ah, but Italy's government is cracking down on tax evasion. It briefly banned 1,000-euro notes, then relented. Now the limit applies only to Italian citizens, leaving the big spenders alone. And who are they? Not us, not 'Merkins, nope. The big money's being spent by Chinese, Russian and Brazilian tourists, flush with cash and eager to buy designer labels in Rome, Milan and Venice.

Reuters reports on the problem here

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Boeing's Italian Mistress

Italian Alps, with Franciacorta vineyardes in the foreground
 Across the top of the Italian boot, from Torino in the west to Trieste in the east, where the Alps meet the plain, runs one of Europe's most prosperous economic engines: Italy's high-tech, high-design, precision manufacturing industry. It's a mind-boggling network of small businesses that line the A4 motorway like an unending strip mall. Further south, the mighty Po river, then farm country punctuated by the jeweled art cities of Parma, Bologia, Ferrara and Ravenna. Then, across the Apennines, the dreamworld of Tuscany and Umbria.

But it's the high-tech manufacturing corridor that's in the news today. Boeing has just announced that the horizontal tail of its 787-9 Dreamliner will be manufactured not in Seattle (where the development work has been going on) but in Italy, at a factory owned by a subsidiary of Italy's giant Finmeccanica known as AleniaAermacchi.

Alenia (a species of skipper butterfly in Latin) already makes the horizontal tails for the 787-8 (the version of the Dreamliner that's currently under construction), but those parts, according to Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates, produced "many quality issues and resulted in significant delays to the program."

Still, it appears that all is forgiven. "We try to have more than one source for parts and assemblies," a Boeing spokesman said. "When it is possible, we have a bias toward additional sourcing."

Alenia does more than just piece-work, however. Their latest plane, just released, is a trainer for the Israeli air force.

The company is headquartered Venegono Superiore, a town of 7,000 souls adjoining the northern Italian lake coutry about 35 miles northwest of Milan. One of its advantages: an airstrip that's longer than its main street, the via Finzi. The best restaurant in town is called La Pancia Piena (the full stomach), and specializes in unlimited portions of oversize gnocchi. Those Boeing inspectors, they'll need every foot of runway to get off the ground on their way home.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ribollita: 3rd (or 4th) time's a charm

By now, you know Pamela Sheldon Johns, right? She's the American author of a whole shelf of Italian cookbooks who settled in Tuscany over ten years ago after she and her husband, an artist, bought an olive grove outside Montepulciano. Johns turned the guest house into a B & B, Poggio Etrusco, and began teaching cooking classes to groups of American visitors.

Her latest book, enthusiastically reviewed on Cornichon last month, is titled Cucina Povera. Unlike books filled with fancy recipes and exotic ingredients, it celebrates (if that's the right word) the simplest preparations, the cuisine of privation.

TheTuscan philosophy is exemplified by the successive uses of its basic vegetable soup, minestra di verdure. Gently sweat a sofrito of onions, carrots and celery in a bit of olive oil. One by one, add vegetables, from hard to soft: cavolo nero (dark kale, also called locinato), potatoes, broccoli stems, chopped stems of mustard greens, zucchini, the green leaves, eventually some roughly chopped canned tomatoes and cooked cannelini. Don't add liquid until the very end. Specific vegetables aren't as important as balance: sweet (herbs like parsely and celery), aromatic (thyme, fennel) and bitter (mustard greens).

If you add hot water or stock, the flavor stays in the vegetables. If you use cold water, the flavors will leach into the liquid. That's what you want.

The first day you have the minestra di verdura, your baseline vegetable soup, drizzled just before serving with extra virgin olive oil. The second day, you slice up your old, dried bread and layer it with the soup, and it becomes a minestra di pane. Tuscan bread is made without salt, so it dries out quickly. If you make this dish at home, you'll need to dry out your bread in a warm oven.

The third day, you add a bit more liquid and a bit more bread and bake it in the oven. That's minestra di pane al forno. It's the very incarnation of a country dish, flavorful and belly-filling, made from nothing, feeding both body and soul for days on end.

And on the fourth day, you take the leftover baked soup out of the pot, brown it in a skillet and eat it with a knife and fork. This is the ultimate ribollita, "recooked" vegetable stew.

Johns got as far as the "bread soup" stage at a two-hour cooking class last week at Diane's Market Kitchen in downtown Seattle. "You have so much more here in the Northwest than we do in Italy," Johns told her students, referring to the abundance of the farmers markets. It would have been unimaginable to the Tuscans she wrote about in Cucina Povera, who scraped by on nothing. And yet, they would agree with what the cobbler in Montepulciano said, "We were better off when we were worse off."

Diane's Market Kitchen, 1101 Post Avenue, Seattle, WA 98104 (206) 624-6114 
Poggio Etrusco via

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Bittersweet Glory of Cucina Povera

Angelo Pellegrini, the sage of Seattle's culinary revolution in the 1960s, grew up in Tuscany, where he would gather up roadside cow pies and sell them for fuel to earn a few coins. That's hardly the boyhood one expects for a revered professor of literature at the University of Washington, but it was not an unusual story.

In the first half of the 20th century, southern Europe was racked by unimaginable poverty. Millions fled toward land they hoped could feed them; those left behind boiled and ate whatever they could find. And when there's literally nothing to eat, one invents. Vegetables, maybe, if they'll grow. Game, perhaps, if it's available (squirrel and possum on the North American continent), otherwise milk from a scrawny cow, flour milled from chestnuts or bread baked without salt because salt is too expensive.

vintage_poggio_etrusco.jpgWhat's remarkable is that those dark days, whose details are vividly recalled, decades later, by survivors at the end of their lifespan, produced a culinary culture that is nothing short of glorious. Their stories, as recounted by Pamela Sheldon Johns in her new book, Cucina Povera, "were sad, bitter and desperate." Almost every person she interviews says the same thing, "We had nothing to eat," yet their memories of the food they did have (and that enabled them to survive) were almost always pleasant.
This compilation, the food of hard times, the cooking of the poor, turns Cucina Povera (subtitled Tuscan Peasant Cooking) into the most positive book I've reviewed in years.

Johns is on a US tour this winter to promote her book and to teach private classes. She'll be in western Washignton for ten days in early March, and will teach a couple of classes at Dianne LaVonne's Market Kitchen (1101 Post Alley in Seattle) at 6 PM on March 7th and at noon on March 9th. There's still space for a couple of other classes; check the Food Artisans website.

To be fair to the long-established scholars, it's a landscape that's been plowed before, especially by Lynn Rossetto Kasper, another culinary writer (and public radio host) with Italian-American roots whose books have been honored by the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Half a generation ago, Rosetto Kasper called this the cooking of ingenuity. "You take what the land gives and you make something of it," she wrote in The Italian Country Table (1999).

Bread baked without salt dries out within a day, to be revived with wine or stock or olive oil, giving way to ribollita (bread soup), panzanella (bread salad) and bruschetta (toasted bread with toppings). As winter subsides, tomatoes ripen and their flavor explodes. Pigs become prosciutto (not to mention guanciale, porchetta, coppa, culatello, pancetta, mortadella, lardo, lombata, speck, salami and so on), milk becomes cheese (from fresh ricotta to aged Parmegiano). Fruit can be preserved with sweet grape must or honey if there's no refined sugar.

olive_orchard_view.jpgCucina Povera is a collection of some five dozen recipes that should make the reader appreciate the ease of modern cooking as well as the depth of flavor that comes from unprocessed food. Johns is an American food writer who now lives on a farm in Tuscany, Poggio Etrusco, outside Montepulciano, where she teaches culinary workshops. Almost every recipe is accompanied by a deftly drawn profile of an Italian friend who recalls the days of true poverty. The ingredients are accessible, the methods are straightforward, the accumulation of the recipes is one of joy and plenty.

There's one for acquacotta, for example, that's a sort of stone soup: nothing but coarsely chopped vegetables for flavor, with a poached egg and a crust of crust of country bread. Dandelion greens or arugula leaves provide a savory filling for a six-egg frittata. A recipe for ricotta cheesecake needs only half a dozen ingredients (eggs, milk, sugar, lemons, flour, baking powder), can be assembled in 15 minutes, baked for 35, and enjoyed for dessert.

I admit to a couple of instances of confusion. I always thought "guanciale" refered specifically to the jowls of a pig, not cows. Sure, bovines have jowls, and restaurants (even in Seattle) offer dishes featuring beef cheeks. But it you're going to call something guanciale, it better be pork. Perhaps it's just a Tuscan thing.

Second, the classic white sauce of European cuisine--butter or oil, flour, milk or cream--is Béchamel in French, Besciamella in Italian, not "Balsamella." It's called Béchamel because its "inventor" was a specific historic personage, a 17th Century nobleman named Louis de Béchameil, the Marquis of Nointel. A velouté with a lot of milk or cream added. Again, perhaps it sounds like "Balsamella" in Tuscan dialect. Pseudo-Italian TV chef Emeril Lagasse calls it Balsamella, too, but that's probably what they call it on the Jersey Shore. ( (Indeed, Johns sent me a Facebook message, after this piece had run on, saying that guanciale can refer to animals other than pigs, and that balsamella is what they call it where she lives.)

No discussion of this book would be complete without an enthusiastic endorsement of the photographs, by Andrea Wyner: portraits that evoke the hard lives the Tuscan elders have lived, as well as refreshing reinventions of Tuscany's landscapes.

Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking, by Pamela Sheldon Johns, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 186 pages, $21.99

Monday, January 30, 2012

Olive Oil's Dirty Secret:

Not Enough Honest Virgins

PUGLIA, Italy--We're along the heel of the Italian boot, a region that produces almost half of Italy's olives and olive oil. There are somewhere between 50 and 60 million olive trees here in Puglia, twelve or thirteen times as many trees as people (4 million). From Ostuni, an ancient village on the edge of the Murgia plateau, you look toward the Adriatic, five miles to the east, and see nothing but olive trees, many of them centuries old, half a million acres all told. That's about the same area as all of Pierce County.

The region lacks rivers and doesn't get much rain, so its agricultural potential, down on the flatland, is pretty much limited to olives and grapes. (Puglia is also Italy's most prolific grape producer, with powerful reds like Primitivo--Zinfandel's identical twin--that ripen perfectly in the cool Mediterranean breezes of the Salento peninsula.) But it is the olives, specifically, that concern us here.

In 2007, the New Yorker published a 5,500-word article titled "Slippery Business" about colossal levels of fraud in the sale of what's known as Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Two thirds of what's sold in American supermarkets as EVOO, estimates Tom Mueller, the article's author, isn't the real thing at all. Oil from olives, perhaps, but hardly the rigorously controlled and strictly defined "first press." It's even worse in the food service industry, with adulterated soybean and sunflower oils regularly passed off as higher quality olive oil. What's more, any manner of imported vegetable pressings from Greece or Turkey or Tunisia are regularly offloaded in ports along Puglia's coast, processed to remove unwanted characteristics, and resold as "Italian." (That step is actually legal as long as the intent isn't to mislead consumers). But then, often with the assistance of a corrupt bureaucrat or two, the stuff is relabelled as olive oil and often "transformed" into extra virgin.

The fraud is relatively easy to detect analytically but almost impossible to prosecute. Not even a notorious case, in Spain 20 years ago, in which 300 people died from adulterated olive oil, slowed the tide of fraud. In Italy, on the regional and national level, the crooked operators are very well connected politically. Supposedly independent industry associations are toothless. The European Union doles out massive subsidies to the "olive oil" producers but has yet to recoup any of its fraudulently obtained grants. When Italy's respected Guarda di Finanza (the military police arm of the Finance Ministry, responsible for drug smuggling, border patrol, and the like) does manage to act, the bad guys stall until the statute of limitations runs out. Experts who challenge the Big Oil producers are regularly sued for slander. Stateside, the various agencies responsible for food safety and domestic security have, thus far, claimed that mislabeled olive oil isn't a big priority.

Who's to blame? In Italy, at any rate, the buck stops at the very top. "[Former Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi's role is indirect but meaningful in olive oil crime - creating and enhancing a sense that law and order is irrelevant," Mueller wrote to me in an email.

Mueller, who lives in Italy and has family roots in eastern Washington, has now expanded his New Yorker article into a book titled Extra Virginity. He updates the various court cases he described (no one went to jail) and widens the horizon of the Italian frauds to the rest of the world.

The United States is the third-largest consumer of olive oil in the world, a market approaching two billion dollars a year, yet has some of the loosest laws on earth concerning olive oil purity or honest labelling. The Food & Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture have no budget for testing, let alone enforcing laws against fraud.

The problem, as Mueller describes it, is the huge reward, with vrtually no risk, in mislabelling the oil. "Extra Virgin" has all but lost its meaning.

I spoke with Mueller by phone recently and he reminded me that olive oil is a truly amazing substance. "We shouldn't be scaring people away," he said. Indeed there's been a huge increase in olive oil sales in the US, thanks to publicity about the health-enhancing properties of the Mediterranean Diet.

Olive oil is, as Mueller puts it, "an age-old food with space-age qualities that medical science is just beginning to understand." There's even an intriguing chemical relationship between EVOO and the anti-inflammatory Ibuprofen. The tragedy is the temptation to dumb it down, by stripping from real Extra Virgin oil the specific characteristics (fruity, peppery, bitter) that make it the "real thing."

Does it have to be Italian? Hardly. In fact, Whole Foods now sells Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Turkey as well as California. (Many Whole Foods oils are DOP-labelled as well, to certify their origins.) Does it have to come from gnarled trees growing on a hillside in Tuscany? Hardly. Excellent oils are produced on vast, quasi-industrial groves in Spain, as well as Sicily and Puglia, even if the bottling plants put them in jars with Tuscan scenery.

There's a lot of unnecessary mystery in the production of olive oil. Those great stone mills are ancient history. Today's harvested olives are ground up with large metal burrs, the paste stirred in huge tanks and the liquid extracted by centrifuge. Trader Joe's website, in a convoluted, 1,900-word article on olive oil, calls this step "centrifugetion." The TJ's description continues: "Because oils are mixed together to achieve balance and style, judging oil by the country of origin has passed into legend. Nowadays, oils from all growing regions and countries can be blended together to produce tastes and styles that have specific uses." So TJ's lowest-cost oil is labeled "Packed in Italy," which doesn't reveal much about its origins.

Ironically, the US is not part of the International Olive Council, a 50-year-old rule-making body set up by the United Nations, relying instead on standards set by the US Department of Agriculture. Still, some surprising results from the University of California, Davis, which is in the heart of America's olive-oil producing region. In a report a year ago, UC Davis researchers found that 69 percent of imported "extra virgin" olive oil (and 10 percent of domestic oil) wasn't what it pretended to be. Even the best-known brands showed signs of adulteration (blended with inferior grades of olive oil or cheaper oils from soybeans, hazelnuts and sunflower seeds).

The lone import to receive top ratings on all points, selling for one-fifth the price of competing brands was Organic Extra Virgin Oil....from Costco.