Local foodie gifts: Olive Oil

I remember the day many years ago when I decided I was going to switch to olive oil for my everyday cooking needs. I’ll occasionally use other oils when called for but olive oil is my first choice for both cooking and salads.

But like many things, it’s gotten more complex. Twenty years ago, we couldn’t get high quality extra virgin olive oil here. My first taste of that was in Italy. It was an epiphany. Before then, I didn’t know oil like that existed. With the global marketplace we now have access to olive oils from around the world – and domestic too. It wasn’t until recently that I got to taste the difference between Spanish oil and Italian oil (you mean olive oil comes from places other than Italy?). That first happened at Pasqualina’s Italian Market and Deli in Blooming Glen where they stock olive oil from Spain, Greece and Italy in large stainless steel vats and bottle it for you in the store. I use the lighter Spanish oil for dressings and the Italian oil for cooking.

Now Bucks County is home to a host of stores where you can buy many olive oils and vinegars. It’s more than just country of origin or varieties of olive. Many of these stores offer flavored – or infused – oils and vinegars. It’s a creative way to add subtle flavors to your dishes, be they savory or sweet.

It’s probably safe to say that most of us are naïve when it comes to olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It’s a lot like wine, though. There is a learning curve but it’s fun to climb it. Like wine, there are olive varietals (like different wine grapes) – for instance, Arbequina, Pictual, Kalamata – and they can be grown in different countries and regions. “The number one factor in olive oil is the olive – not necessarily the soil,” explains Pete Ricci from Sand Castle Winery’s TASTE store in Warrington. Today olive oil is coming from both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. Not just Italy, but Spain, Greece, Northern Africa, California, Australia, Chile and Argentina.

“There are 150 different varieties of olives,” explains Mimi Erhman from Casa Casale in Lahaska, which carries thirty-eight extra virgin olive oils and ninety-two varieties of balsamic vinegar. “Each farm picks and blends their own. We only purchase from small farms who pick and press the olives on the same day,” says Erhman. Olives are also harvested at different times and produce different flavors as a result. Young olives have a strong flavor, but produce less oil than mature olives, which have a milder flavor.

Why “extra virgin” olive oil? Extra virgin olive oil is “cold pressed.” Not using heat to process – like other cooking oils – it has more of the antioxidants and polyphenols that give olive oil its healthy reputation. Olive oil is also full of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids. Beware of oils labeled “light,” “lite,” or “pure.” It ain’t the real thing. One hundred percent extra virgin olive oil from a trusted source is the way to go.

Balsamic vinegar is another story. All balsamic vinegar comes from Modena, Italy. There different producers harvest grapes, remove the skin, boil down the juice and store it in charred barrels using different woods to influence flavor. The vinegar is aged a minimum of two years. You can also buy flavored balsamic vinegar – infused with fruits, herbs, even chocolate. Traditional balsamic vinegar is aged eighteen years and it is sublime – thick, syrupy and intense. Good vinegar shouldn’t punch you in the mouth. This vinegar enhances and highlights whatever you pour it over.

Learning about different olive oils and balsamic vinegars is easy – you just taste them. It’s a little weird at first, sipping oil and vinegar, but once you try one or two, you’re hooked. “Are we having fun yet?” asked Dawn Lorenzo, who with her husband, Manny, own the Olive-n-Grape in New Hope, addressing a group of customers who had just arrived. The store is filled with stainless steel vats – called fusti’s – with nineteen extra virgin olive oils and twenty-four balsamic vinegars. The Lorenzo’s spent two years researching and finding sources for their olive oils and vinegars before opening in July 2011. They buy their product straight from the farmer. “Our grower in Sicily brings his oil directly to the boat,” they explain. They also constantly taste different oils because, like wine, one year’s harvest can differ from another.

Christina Haber and her husband Christopher Haber of Olive Oil Etcetera in Doylestown also go direct to the farm. “If I can’t talk to a grower, I don’t want to carry it,” says Christina. Olive Oil Etcetera specializes in California olive oils, which have been getting high praise in recent years. They opened their store in the Main Street Marketplace in September 2011 after spending three years of research into olive oil.

It can be a little overwhelming at first but every store has helpful and knowledgeable salespeople – or the owners, themselves – on hand to guide. The first step is to taste and learn about the different varietals. Find what you like. Think about how you will use it. And think beyond just cooking and salads. Olive oil is a great substitute for butter, in baking or on vegetables. Try drizzling dark chocolate balsamic vinegar over ice cream or maple balsamic vinegar over waffles. All of the stores also help with pairing oils and vinegars – like Herbs de Provence olive oil with lavender balsamic, or Cilantro and Roasted Onion olive oil with Fig balsamic vinegar. At the Tubby Olive in Newtown there is a whole room filled with recipe cards.

Nancy Murray and Sharon Huss own the Tubby Olive, which carries thirty-two olive oils and thirty-one balsamic vinegars, among other gourmet products. “It can change everyday cooking into something special,” Nancy explains. “You can be a simple cook or a chef. It elevates anything.” Pete Ricci agrees. “The people who can use it the most are gourmet cooks – and people who don’t know how to cook.” TASTE carries thirteen olive oils and sixteen balsamic vinegars, along with gourmet cheese, charcuterie, olives, coffee and chocolates – and a full wine bar to taste Sand Castle Winery wines.

Each store will bottle your oil or vinegar for you at the store. Stocks are replenished regularly to ensure freshness. Prices start at $12.95 per bottle, with the average being $15.95 for a 375 liter bottle. And it makes a great gift. All of the stores I visited offer nice gift baskets of all different products and prices.

To learn even more about olive oil, read Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller.

Where to get it:

Casa Casale
Shop #1 Peddlers Village
Route 202 Street Road
Lahaska, PA
(215) 794-1474

11 Bridge Street
New Hope, PA 18938
(215) 862-5464

Olive Oil Etcetera
Main Street Marketplace
22 South Main Street
Doylestown, PA 18901
(267) 880-6258

Pasqualina’s Italian Market & Deli
1259 Souderton Road (Route 113)
Blooming Glen, PA
(215) 453-5941

711 Easton Road
Warrington, PA
(215) 343-4528

The Tubby Olive
17 South State Street
Newtown, PA 18940
(267) 364-5085

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