Gourmet Olive Oils and Vinegars Make for Exceptional Meals
Several years ago, my wife and I were weaving our way through the cobblestone streets of a ridiculously picturesque hilltop village in southern France when we almost literally stumbled upon a tiny shop offering an olive oil tasting.
How long could it possibly take, we thought. So we entered … and left nearly a half hour later stunned by the variety of local olive oils we had sampled. At the time, I chalked it up to just another food thing the French do that we will never see on this side of the Atlantic.
And, of course, I was dead wrong.
For example, stroll into the Newburyport Olive Oil Company [Editor’s note: Newburyport Olive Oil Company is now know as Port Plums Culinary Goods & Olive Oil] and you can sample nearly three dozen different olive oils, including garlic, lemon and truffle, along with almost two dozen balsamic vinegars in flavors ranging from fig and dark chocolate to blackberry ginger.
Drop into Tuscan Market in Salem, N.H., and you’ll find a wild variety of olive oils and balsamic vinegars that feature the flavors of oranges, cherries and juniper berries. The market even has its own brand of oil.
Restaurants are also getting into the act. The Lawrence-based Salvatore’s restaurants chain sells a unique take-home olive oil that features the same label owner Sal Lupoli’s grandfather used when he was in the olive oil business in the Boston area in the 1940s.
How did this expansion of olive oil options happen? The food industry, like nature, hates a vacuum. As our palates here in the Merrimack Valley became more sophisticated, we created a demand that local retailers were happy to meet.
Lauren Negron of Port Plums said the most frequently heard comment from customers is, “Wow, I didn’t know there were so many different kinds of olive oils.” Along with the bevy of oils from the usual suspects — Italy, Greece and Spain — the couple also imports olive oil from other countries, including Chile, Tunisia and Portugal.
Listening to a local olive oil aficionado describe his or her favorite sampling is almost like talking to a wine expert. Charles Lacerte, Tuscan Market’s logistics and merchandise manager, says this about the market’s house oil: “It’s one of the most versatile oils we carry, a very balanced flavor. It’s extra virgin, and you can even smell a little bit of artichoke in it because it’s from the Sicilian region. … A Tuscan olive oil smells more like mushrooms.”
Though most folks would assume that Salvatore’s is all and only about things Italian, Executive Vice President of Hospitality Peter Ackerman revealed that they go with a California company that makes its oil from olive trees imported from Italy.
The Corto olive oil that Salvatore’s sells at its restaurants is “unfiltered and first press,” according to Ackerman, quality standards in the olive oil world. “It’s a blend just for us,” says Ackerman, who has visited the West Coast company more than once to assure that continued quality.
Still feeling your way through the olive oil/balsamic vinegar jungle? Here are a few tips from the local experts:
• Some oils are meant primarily for cooking, others for drizzling over a prepared dish, and still others for dipping. If you’re not sure what to do with one that has caught your eye (or palate), ask about it.
• Feeling guilty each time you add butter to your home-popped popcorn? Lauren Negron recommends a butter-flavored olive oil she carries. “I use it on popcorn, mashed potatoes, all kinds of things,” she says.
• You like the idea of balsamic vinegars with exotic flavors but have no idea what you would actually do with them? Try raspberry balsamic vinegar with fruit salad, ice cream or frozen yogurt. Fig vinegar can be part of a dynamic barbecue glaze and is good for marinating pork.
• Rosemary olive oil is a winning addition to any bread plate. Lemon-infused oil drizzled over prepared salmon will add depth and a citrus tang.
But the best tip of all is this: Experiment, have fun and don’t worry about breaking the rules, because there really are none. If you like the oil/vinegar food pairing you’ve created … then it’s a good one.
Port Plums Culinary Goods & Olive Oil
Andover, Lawrence and Medford, Mass.
Portsmouth & Salem, N.H.