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For many years I’ve wandered the aisles of gourmet stores and passed bottle after bottle of Italian, French, Greek, and domestic olive oils—never inexpensive by the way—and wondered how they tasted. I hesitated to plunk down my sheckles on an unknown product. Sure you can tell a lot about the oil by its color, but I’ve been fooled by this method. I love a sprightly, fruity oil in my salad (would that be the light, yellow-green stuff?), and somewhat more “olive” flavor in the oil I use for cooking or, say, pasta sauces: perhaps the deeper-green green? I never really found my ideal—until now.
Olive Oil and Moi
Potential buyers can taste test by pouring olive oil out of the many spouts into a little plastic cup.
When I was a little kid the only olive oil I knew spelled her name Olive Oyl, and she was crazy about Popeye the Sailor Man who, in turn, was crazy about spinach. My favorite and easiest way to cook spinach is just to toss it very briefly with olive oil and pine nuts in a skillet with maybe the addition of a teeny sprinkling of fresh nutmeg. I bet Olive Oyl would love it, as it wouldn’t alter her rail-thin figure. But I digress…
I can’t remember exactly what oil we used at home back in those post-WWII days. Until I started taking cooking classes in the 1960s, the words “extra virgin” simply described a female saint whose name appeared over the door of a church. And I wasn’t alone. Then cheerleader Rachael Ray came along rather emphatically championing EVOO (rhymes with “heave ho”).
Let’s get back to the subject of tasting. As I recall, on a few of those visits to the fancy markets there might have been three bottles of oil open (maximum) and cubes of bread for tasting. Now, right at 2 West Market Street in Corning, you can taste about forty different oils and balsamic vinegars (roughly twenty of each). That’s all because Wendy and Bob Oppenheim have opened an immaculate new shop there. I talked to Wendy and her idea is to educate the cook, to find out what oil floats your lettuce leaf or lasagna noodle. “Buy what you like” is Wendy’s theme here. And the olive oils she stocks are produced during the optimum olive oil season in the various regions and countries represented in the shop.
Now through late summer, the shop is carrying oils from the Northern Hemisphere, grown in places like Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and California. Toward the fall, they will start carrying oils produced throughout the Southern Hemisphere in places like Chili, Australia, and Tunisia.
Interesting, Informative—and Fun
Crystal City Olive Oil stocks about twenty olive oils and twenty balsamic vinegars, and buyers are allowed to taste test before purchasing.
I love to meet people who are enthused about their work, and Wendy is full of great ideas on how to marry the flavors in the shop. I loved her idea for a dressing that she calls “Creamsicle.” (I immediately thought of my favorite summer treats and in my twelve-year-old mind only Creamsicles beat Fudgsicles.) I listened up: Mix Cara Cara Vanilla Balsamic with any EVOO and there you have a divine dressing for mixed greens. Mix Wendy’s Lemon Olive Oil with the Tangerine Balsamic and then drizzle this over baby or regular spinach leaves, toss in some lightly toasted pecans, crumbled Feta cheese, and real bacon bits. That ought to make any summer party memorable.
Here’s another mixture that you can conjure up at home. Wendy is most enthusiastic about mixing Basil Oil and Strawberry Balsamic and then drizzling this over sliced fresh and local strawberries. Wait! Local strawberries will be here soon. What a refreshing dish, perhaps topped with a little Crème Fraiche or low-fat sour cream. Wow! And so easy. This one kicks ordinary dipping oils out of the dining room: try Tuscan Herb Oil matched with Mission Fig Balsamic. I’m mentally dipping cubes of bread in this and salivating.
By the way, on a visit last year to Pinehurst, I visited a similar shop in the village. “Crystal City” is not part of any chain. Wendy uses a well-respected wholesaler in California and spent some time out there in training. (She was a health professional before “retirement.”)
The oils and vinegars in the shop come from many places in the world and are clearly labeled to show their origins.
Perhaps you’ll fall in love with a Lemon or Persian Lime or Blood Orange oil in the fruit-scented area. Then there’s Tuscan Herb Oil or Basil Oil or the Crystal City Chipotle Infused Oil. Don’t be concerned if you don’t know “chipotle” from “chip-pan-le”—as Wendy or her staff will explain it all for you. I was also thrilled to see Walnut Oil available, as it makes a fantastic dressing for many dishes—turkey or chicken salads are especially good—and it can be hard to find.
Light and Oil Don’t Mix
The olive oils are housed in well-identified stainless steel containers. These containers, called Fusti, look like little beer kegs. “Light destroys oil,” says Wendy. You pick the ones you want to try and decant a bit in a paper cup. When you purchase an oil, it will be decanted into a bottle and clearly marked. And “different” oils make a dandy present for the cooks you know. The store will ship, by the way.
While I was being bedazzled by the array of products, I picked up some of the recipes on hand. Since I was scheduled to take an hors d’oeuvre to a friend’s feed, I made the unusual hummus recipe. It’s unusual because it doesn’t contain any sesame paste. It did call for quite a slug of Dark Toasted Sesame Oil. I cut back on the latter because, in my book, a little goes a very long way. The folks liked it, and I liked the fact that it went together in minutes. Ask for your copy at the store.
An Opportunity for a Small Group
The balsamic vinegars come in a wide variety, from pomegranate to coconut.
In addition to tasting on your own, a minimum of six folks can enjoy an “Evening with Olive Oil” at the store, complete with food samples and recipe cards: all this for a nominal fee. In addition, you get 10% off your purchase that evening. If you have a gourmet club or a book club—or just a bunch of food-interested friends— wouldn’t this make a great event?
And I bet that different folks will pick different oils and vinegars—so it’s fun as well as enlightening.
Oops, I don’t mean to slight the vinegars. There were twenty-two on the day I was there, and with so many interesting ones to choose from you’ll find it is really fun being creative using different flavors when you pickle or marinate or just toss a salad.
Often commercial balsamics are not aged naturally. Manufacturers throw in some sugar and goodness knows what to create that sweetness we like in the true balsamic vinegars. But buyers need not beware at Crystal City. Wendy has the good stuff.
Balsamics have a long shelf life as well. After all, with vinegars as with people, the older they get the better they become. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.