Alina Lawrence opened her wonderful olive oil tasting room and retail shop, Olivette, in Darien days before the New Year, resolving to bring freshly pressed, single varietal Extra Virgin Olive Oils and brilliantly flavored vinegars to Fairfield County. I recently spent a delightful 2 ½ hours sipping and slurping my way around the room, grateful for her resolution.
If you are looking for true Extra Virgin Olive Oil, with all its health and culinary benefits, the grocery aisle is a convenient place to shop, but may not be the best place to find what you are seeking. Tom Mueller, has written extensively on the perils of purchasing olive oil, and recently published Extra Virginity, The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. To sum up his work briefly, the oil industry is fraught with fraud, and we are not always getting what we expect in the bottles we purchase.
According to Mueller, many of the olive oils labeled Extra Virgin are not; others are doctored with coloring or flavoring or worse. Those that say bottled in Italy can mean just that, bottled there, but the olives not necessarily grown there. Italy is the largest importer of olives in the world. The best way to ensure you are getting true EVOO, says Mueller, is to “visit the miller, look him in the eye and see what is being made.” As lovely as that sounds, I find it hard to get to the grocery store some days, so gazing at a miller on a Tuscan hillside is not a viable option. The alternative, he offers, is to find a reputable dealer where you can taste and trust what is sold, and choose what you like. Thanks to Olivette, this is a viable option.
Olivette has over 20 varieties of Extra Virgin Olive Oil and more flavors of fused and infused oils lining one wall and center island of the shop. More than 20 varieties of Balsamic Vinegars from Modena, Italy as well as other flavored vinegars line the opposite wall. All are held in stainless steel fustis (the ultimate in storage vessels) that have spigots for delivering drop by drop the distinctive liquids they contain. With each fusti revealing another flavor or nuance, you can’t help but wonder what makes Extra Virgin Olive Oil so good.
The most basic distinction in oil is whether it is virgin or refined. Virgin olive oil is obtained from the olive only, picked and crushed by mechanical or other physical means, in conditions that do not alter the oil in any way. It is essentially, pure fruit juice, and it meets specific criteria for taste, aroma and chemical composition set by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC). Depending on where the oil scores according to these standards, it can be designated as Extra Virgin, Virgin, and Ordinary Virgin.
Alternatively, refined olive oil is made by treating low quality or defective virgin olive oil with charcoal or other chemical and physical filters to eliminate the defects. Refined oil is generally tasteless, odorless, and colorless. Consequently, the product sold as “Olive Oil” is a blend of refined olive oil with virgin olive oil added to improve taste. Most of the olive oil sold in the world falls into this category. Manufacturers create different blends by adding varying amounts of virgin oil to achieve different tastes at different prices. “Light” or “Extra Light” oils sold in the U.S. fall into this category.
According to E.U. law, Extra-Virgin Olive Oil must be made exclusively by physical means (a press or a centrifuge) and meet thirty-two chemical requirements. In addition, it must meet strict taste and aroma requirements, and must be free of sixteen official taste flaws, which include “musty,” and “fusty,” (are 14 others really necessary after those?). If there is even one defect, the oil cannot be labeled Extra-Virgin. Excellent EVOO will also always be “cold-pressed” (no heat applied, which yields greater amounts of oil from the fruit, but alters taste and breaks down the chemical composition), and “first pressed” (no water or solvents added to extend already pressed paste). Only 10% of the olive oil sold in the market place meet all these criteria and can be rightly named Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
At Olivette, you can be assured you are tasting and buying authentic EVOO. Alina purchases her oils from Veronica Foods, a producer and importer of premium Extra Virgin Olive Oils from small regional mills around the world, who is recognized by Mueller as a reputable source of oils. On the buying end of the business, Veronica Foods only purchases oils from producers who get their olives to the mill within 4 hours of being picked and who pick at the ideal moment (about 2 weeks) before the olives ripen. On the selling end, they meet, train and must approve of everyone who wants to sell their olive oils at a dedicated retail outlet.
When you enter Olivette, the gleaming fustis are center stage, as well as stage left and stage right, resting on warm, wooden tabletops. Each contains a single varietal EVOO and is labeled with the type of olive, the country of origin and its crush date. Olive oil is best consumed within a year or two of its crush date, after that oxidation robs it of its healthful properties and good taste. The labels also contain 3 key chemical scores: the FFA and the peroxide levels, which must be low as they represent decomposition, and the polyphenol content, which should be higher than 500, indicating the antioxidant level.
The chemical composition will impact taste, but not solely. With over 700 varieties of olives, EVOOs can range from delicate and mellow to bitter and pungent. With enough sipping, and Alina’s helpful guidance, you can come to know the nuances of different varieties to suit your tastes.
Alina, who grew up in Greece, and considers herself a true foodie after years of living and eating in New York City, will not buy any oil that hasn’t passed her keen assessment. She sells only single varietals, not blends, because she says, “When people blend they are trying to hide something.” She will ask you how you like your oil, strong, medium or light and how you intend to use it; then make suggestions from there. The rest, as they say, is personal.
Tasting at Olivette is like eating around the world. An Australian Hojiblanca was creamy and sweet and finished with a pleasant fruit accent, as if saying “g-day, mate!” A Spanish Arbequina was also mild, but it finished with a peppery “ole!” A California EVOO that was crushed in only 2 months ago, with a polyphenol count of 728, was as overpowering as the surf on a stormy day. “Dude!” At each tasting, my mind raced to the food I would love to pair with the oil. A dense loaf of bread, an arugula salad with shaved parmesan, or a creamy mushroom risotto. One sip of the Persian lime fused olive oil (olives and limes crushed together) caused a sprint to a bowl of guacamole and a cold margarita.
We ended with the flavor- infused oils, where the infused butter olive oil deserves honorable mention. While this combination seems akin to putting the Hulk on steroids, the oil is not overpowering; it is, however, over the top. It smells like melted butter, yet had a less greasy, more refined taste. Drizzling it on popcorn would be amazing; dipping lobster in it, heavenly.
The balsamic vinegars are all from Modena and aged up to 18 years in chestnut and oak barrels using the Solana system, where they are moved to a new barrel annually. The traditional balsamic tastes so much like the grapes from which it is derived, I wanted to run home and toss the brown bottled imposter sitting in my cabinet.
The infused vinegars are wonderful and will have you dreaming of desserts that would only be enhanced by a drizzle of chocolate balsamic, or a splash of espresso balsamic, or a hint of aged lavender balsamic. The selection exceeds my ability to describe how you might use them. Alina confided that her husband drizzles the Thai lemongrass mint white vinegar in his mojitos – true genius.
On the day I visited, Alina had just returned from the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco and was excited about the additional products she tasted there and ordered for the shop. She carries a small and unique selection of Italian, vacuum-sealed olives, specialty rubs, sauces, confits and preserves, largely from France and Italy, and will be happy to describe each of them to you.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil takes on many culinary roles: it can play the straight man, enhancing its partner’s delivery, or hold its own as the bold and sassy lead. We are fortunate to be able to experience its many varieties of character in one theater.
Olivette is located at 1084 Boston Post Rd. Darien. 203-621-0643
To judge oils comparably, you will want to attend to these four qualities:
Aroma. This will strike you as either pleasant or unpleasant, and of mild, medium or strong intensity. Flavors vary widely from fruity to grassy to spicy.
Mouth-feel. Good EVOO will not feel greasy.
Taste at the back of your tongue. Bitter is better, but will vary in intensity from mild, to strong.
Taste after you swallow. Good oil will feel pungent at the back of your throat, but should confirm a balance between its aroma and its taste.
[Photography courtesy of Jane Beiles Photography]