Thursday, June 9, 2011

Forget What You Think You Know about EVOO

If you love food and cooking like I do, you probably think you know about olive oils and balsamic vinegar. You know, “EVOO” (God how I cringe when I think about you know who saying that) ... you really only need the extra virgin/fancier oils for salad dressings, right? Oh and cheap balsamic is bad - I know that much. I thought those were the simple rules but I was wrong. I figured as long as I was buying EVOO that costs around $15 I had to be on track and I would buy balsamic at one of the “import” places and I’d be safe with that. There. Then you go to a place like Olive & Vine – new at CityCentre – and you realize how your culinary world has been seriously lacking and you didn’t even know it. This retail shop and “tasting bar” features an ever-evolving roster of premium, super fresh, extra virgin olive oils and aged balsamic vinegars along with some really cute kitchen ware, awesome salts and seasonings and even some apothecary items. But that doesn’t sound nearly as amazing as it actually is and I really want to somehow convey how amazing it actually is … where to start?
First of all, it’s a learning experience where you come to understand what few consumers realize ... that many of the imported “extra virgin olive oils” stocking American shelves are not actually worthy of the “EVOO” title, which is regulated in Europe by the International Olive Council. Their standards require that oils undergo both a chemical and sensory analysis and only those with superior taste and less than .8% free fatty acids can be labeled and sold as “extra virgin”. The US has not adopted these standards, so many of the imported oils labeled “EVOO” do not meet even the minimum international requirements. Indeed, a recent study conducted by the University of California, Davis found that up to 69% of the popular imported olive oils do not meet the technical and taste standards of an official “EVOO” title.
Then there’s the factor of those who are of the quality necessary for an EVOO designation, it is often difficult for the consumer to know when the oil was pressed, how long it has been in the distribution system and how it has been stored. Since oil starts to break down the minute it is produced, the freshest oils will always have the most vibrant flavors and health nutrients. So, many commercial products could easily be a year old at the time of purchase and don’t come close to their original flavor profile due to age and exposure to heat and light. I never knew how many antioxidants are actually contained in oils of this caliber (there is actually a “score” on each large urn of oil). It is significant!
This is all important to understand as you try to get your head around how these oils taste so incredibly good along with being so fragrant and with their beautiful mouth feel. You instantly want to understand why so the info above becomes instantly relevant. And I haven’t even talked about the vinegars yet … omg.
So you head into Olive and Vine, and actually taste all of these amazing products. Yes, they have little cubes of bread but everything was so fabulous, I was just drinking my “tastes” from the tiny tasting cups. I could not get over it. Similar to wine or chocolate tasting, the regional and varietal differences (think single-origin olives) create myriad flavor profiles, many of which are described in similar terms to that of wine; for instance, spicy, fruity, fragrant, buttery, peppery and nutty.
The Sweet Basil was beautifully fragrant, smooth and buttery and so many of the others absolutely blew my mind in their own unique and specific ways. There are about 15 different oils to try and I think I tried almost every one of them. The tasting process is addictive. They also make recommendations for which oils pair with which vinegars (and there are samples of these combinations). Things really start to click at that point, which is when I headed over to the vinegars.
The balsamic vinegars are made in the traditional, centuries-old manner and include a rich, dense Traditional Balsamic (aged 18 years) as well as a variety of flavored vinegars. The traditional was so delicious (and so far from anything I’d had outside of a few meals in NYC); I could hardly believe it’s syrupy goodness. I instantly thought of so many things it would be perfect with, including ice cream and also with strawberries and black pepper, never mind salad dressings. But there was more. A Strawberry Balsamic, screaming of fresh strawberries (the fruit is cold pressed as part of the process, not a “flavoring” added afterwards), a gorgeous Blueberry Balsamic and several made with “white” Balsamic as the base – a Pink Grapefruit Vinegar nearly made me cry as did the Ginger Balsamic. There are as many vinegars to try as there are oils and endless combinations to consider. I found myself wanting so many of them, it was really challenging to choose.
The owners are extremely knowledgeable and passionate about their products. Whatever you choose is bottled right then and there, available in two different sizes (200 ml and 375 ml bottles). I have already given both oils and vinegars as gifts to wild reviews and had my girlfriends sipping the Pink Grapefruit vinegar as though it were a shot of tequila and all of them had a fit over it, in spite of their initial concerns about “drinking” vinegar. This stuff is NOT like anything you’ve ever had. Trust me. Just go.
Olive & Vine is located in CityCentre on Queensbury Lane (facing the Italian restaurant “Brio”). It only took us about 10 minutes to get there from the Heights. It’s easy and it’s way worth it. Like I said … trust me … just go. You won’t be sorry! Photos by Jack Thompson btw.

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