I am generally not a sucker for highly-packaged “gourmet” product, perhaps because so much of the world devotes so much time attempting to seduce me into spending money needlessly on crap – especially at the holiday season.
I buy a lot of my spices in the spice aisle at Costco, and I try to suss out the best product, not merely the most expensive or most Photoshopped in the catalog. That means while some stuff still comes to my door from Williams Sonoma and the like, the reality is that, like most people serious about what comes into and goes out of my kitchen, I buy from a wide variety of sources, only some of which are going to make the lists promoted by glossy magazines this year. (And I do take the advice of those recommendations and taste tests in Cooks Illustrated magazine.)
A year ago, I made a trip back out to Ventura, California, and one of the things I bought to smuggle home in my suitcase was olive oil – because it’s native to that part of the country, and custom infused olive oils are harder to find here. (I also filled my suitcase with oysters from The Jolly Oyster and dry ice, and smushed my wadded up clothes into a carry on, but that’s another story – ending with “damn, they were delicious.”)
Cooks need to embrace olive oil, because it’s one of those legendary good fats, but also because it tastes wonderful and adds to the flavor of foods. And, of course, if you’re cooking anything that has its origins on the Mediterranean basin, you better be doing it with olive oil, because otherwise nothing will taste right. (Please all call to mind the scene in Eat Pray Love where Julia Roberts sits on the floor spilling olive oil across an ordinary piece of asparagus with longing.)
Now, before you run off and order the most expensive olive oil online, pause.
There are a number of things you should know about the product and what you’re getting. The first is that olive oil – I know this is shocking – actually goes bad after about two years from pressing. That means buying in appropriate sizes, because if you buy more than you’ll use in that time period, you’ll just end up throwing a quantity out. Don’t waste needlessly.
It’s not just age that can damage your olive oil. A general rule is that you want to keep it in the dark, because light will cause it to spoil fairly quickly (smelling it will tell you if it’s spoiled, believe me). If you’re buying at the supermarket in clear glass bottles, you probably have considerably less than two years before your oil starts to go bad, and it may already be on its way out. Light, heat and air make your olive oil a nasty stew of bad fairly quickly.
If you’ve gotten that far, and you’re still ready to go buy yourself some olive oil, and maybe a nice bottle of balsamic vinegar to pair with it, I’d like to say that the buying options for premium olive oil have just skyrocketed in Nashvegas with the opening of the Olive Oil Store in Green Hills. Now, we know I’m not a fan of the sprawl of Green Hills, but the Olive Oil Store is in Village Green across from Talbots, so you can access it by coming in from the South via Harding Road and never hit mall traffic. (Can I get a “hallelujah?”)
I walked into the small, but well-organized, brightly-lit store, took a deep breath, and I was with them. I walked out with a bag of Christmas presents.
Here’s the deal: Owners Tommye and Scott Solem (originally Michiganites) are the independent owners. It’s not a chain, although they also have store in Jacksonville, Fla. for our Florida readers (and online here). They source their olive oils and vinegars via the solidly honest Veronica Foods Company(here) – this is important, because trustworthy sources are vital – olive oil, like honey, is one of those products that’s had a few recent scandals in terms of the content and adulteration of those bottles you buy at the grocery store. Owners Mike and Veronica Bradley and their Oakland-based team know their stuff, and the Solems do them proud, because it’s clear they in turn know theirs as well.
Every oil they sell here has been chemically tested, and you can find the details of those tests right there on little signs next to the pretty dispensers that line the walls.
The Olive Oil Store is brand new – they opened November 1. Aside from “plain” high end oils, you can pick up fused (wherein the olives are crushed together with the fruits, lemon for example) and infused (where the pressed oil is merged with the fruit, herb, etc.). The flavor underlines the quality here – the mildest olive oil is used, so you can appreciate the depth of the elements added.
I left the store with the garlic infused oil, which is destined for a whole lot of things, although right now I’m just using it to dip bread with a little sea salt – I mean, oil, salt and bread are the archetypes of food back to the days of Homer, right? This is ur-food, I tell you. Anyhow, the garlic oil is perfect for a huge number of uses, including drizzling on your pizza.
I picked up a bottle of the Harissa oil as well. This stuff is made for those who like some spice on the palate – infused with chile peppers, cumin, caraway, coriander and garlic. I can think of about a million things to do with it, from adding some zest to appetizers (I do a lot of chacuterie plates for guests, so I see the potential right there) to making use of it in Moroccan-style tangines. I also grabbed the Tuscan Herb, because it was absolutely delicious, and has applications from salad dressings to pasta.
I am reflecting on going back and picking up the white truffle (because, hello! white truffle) and the fused lemon, because while I’m not sure what I’d do with it other than pour it over fresh asparagus or a spinach and tangerine salad, it was so good …
Bottles for most olive oils and vinegars (all fine balsamics – made from the grape must, but both light and dark) start at $15.99 for 375 ml, so affordability is right on. (Special items, like the truffle oils, are pricier but not unreasonably so.)
You can find the Olive Oil Store at 117 Hillsboro Pike, Suite 102 in Nashville, at 4668 Town Crossing Drive, Suite 109 in Jacksonville or online.
(Those of you Middle Tennessee peeps living in Williamson County, there’s also Olivia Olive Oil in Cool Springs. The selection is much smaller, but everything I’ve tried there has been excellent (I’ve currently got Pomegranate Balsamic, Basil Olive Oil and Habenero Olive Oil from Olivia in my rotation). You’ll find Olivia at 443 Cool Springs Blvd. in Franklin and online here.