It seems that olive oil is really having its day in the sun.
Of course, many of us have been using olive oil for years — cooking with it, drizzling it on top of our salads, or happily dipping a fresh chunk of bread into a bowl of it. But it is only recently that olive oil has been elevated to celebrity status. Suddenly, everyone wants to know from where their favorite oil originates, how pure it is, and how exactly it is pressed. But mostly, people want to know: Can I taste it? Tasting bars have been popular in Europe and California for several years, but have only recently started popping up on the East Coast. Three tasting rooms have opened in the mid-Hudson Valley in the last 18 months.
“My best friend told me flat out, ‘There is no way this can work, just no way,’ ” says Cory Wirthmann, who forged ahead anyway and opened Scarborough Fare in New Paltz in April 2011. The centerpiece of the two-room gourmet shop is an elegant island that holds two rows of stainless-steel fustis (the Italian word for tank), each filled with a different freshly made olive oil from around the globe. Customers can sample them all and buy them by the ounce in reusable glass bottles.
The mother-and-son team at Scarborough Fare, Donna Wirthmann and Cory Wirthmann
“Garlic — that’s by far the most popular oil,” says Wirthmann, who notes that they rotate many of the other flavors. “I think there would be a riot if we took that one off the menu.” The shop, dubbed a “fine olive oil and vinegar tap room,” also sells about a dozen balsamic vinegars, local cheeses and cured meats, coffee, teas, and other gourmet items.
The idea for the business was a natural for Wirthmann, an energetic 29-year-old who once served in the Coast Guard, works as a part-time firefighter, and is also finishing up a degree in cellular/molecular biology at SUNY New Paltz. “I really, really love to cook; I may have to go to the Culinary Institute one day,” he says. But even he has been surprised by the shop’s rabid following.
It is the highest quality and most expensive olive oil and is produced without chemicals by simply pressing the olives. It must also pass laboratory tests on certain characteristics like acidity
“They come religiously,” he says. “We’ve got people who get off the bus and show up with their bottles. We had one man from New Jersey who was on business in Albany and he detoured to New Paltz just to come to the shop. He said, ‘I don’t know why I’m here, but my wife told me I had to come.’ He handed us a bottle and we knew what to do.”
There is a steep learning curve, says Wirthmann, who runs the business with his mother, Donna Wirthmann. While Mom handles the books and greets customers (in addition to her full-time job at a local church), Cory has been studying up on olives and is even learning Italian so he can better communicate with the Italian olive farmers. “I started out with one hour of Italian TV a day; usually soccer,” he says. “Then I used Rosetta Stone.”
The mom-and-son duo recently opened a second shop, this one on Beacon’s Main Street. Cory has already started scouting for a third location. “I can’t tell you where I’m looking,” he says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t want someone else to steal the idea.”
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Olive experts: Pure Mountain partners Charlie Ruehr (left) and Zak Cassady-Dorion
Zak Cassady-Dorion thinks Rhinebeck is the perfect place for an olive oil tasting bar. “We looked at hundreds of towns,” he says, before opening Pure Mountain Olive Oils and Vinegars with his cousin, Charlie Ruehr, on Memorial Day weekend. “It had to have good foot traffic, it had to have a food scene, and it needed to be a weekend destination. We love Rhinebeck.” And apparently, the affection is returned in spades. Business is good, says Cassady-Dorion, who attributes the success to “a big movement in the U.S. toward better quality foods. People don’t want drugs in their food anymore, and they’re realizing that maybe having corn syrup in everything we eat is not the best thing for our health. Olive oil is just so good for you; everyone loves the product.”
Getting people up to speed on their olive oil knowledge is a big part of the business. “Ninety-nine percent of people don’t know anything about our product,” says Cassady-Dorion, adding that producers have just 18 months from the time the olive comes off the tree until the oil spoils. “If it’s been bottled for four or five years, it’s completely rancid. But people don’t realize that most of the olive oil they are using from the grocery store is completely rancid. They’ve never tasted fresh olive oil before; there’s a huge difference.”
It means the olives were pressed without any heat; this method tends to lead to the highest quality oil
Customers can try approximately 20 different olive oils, a similar number of balsamic vinegars, and 15 different sea salts. Recipe cards are situated right next to each product. These days, sampling olive oil is often compared to tasting wine, and there are similarities in the way you go about it. “You heat it with your hands, you smell the aroma, you slurp it so that it covers your entire mouth,“ says Cassady-Dorion. Aficionados point to the four S’s: swirl, sniff, sip, and swallow.
A fusti of Pure Mountain olive oil awaits tasters
“The basil olive oil and the lemon-white balsamic vinegar are our top two sellers,” says Cassady-Dorion. “I love to combine them, the aromas are beautiful. I put it on everything, white fish, chicken.” Another favorite combo is the scallion olive oil paired with the pineapple dark balsamic vinegar. “It’s a great marinade drizzled over grilled vegetables,” he says.
Almost all of the olive oils retail for $17.95 (for 375 ml) and can be poured into dark-green glass bottles. “The worst things for olive oil are air and light. Clear glass bottles are terrible,” says Cassady-Dorion. To ensure that the olive oils are truly “extra-virgin,” he sends them all to a lab to be tested. An industry scandal ensued in 2010 when a University of California study found that 69 percent of imported oils sampled failed to meet accepted standards for extra-virgin olive oil. Later that year, the USDA instituted new standards for grades of olive oil; it was the first change since 1948.
But at Pure Mountain, customers are delighting in the fresh finds. “People come in and love that they can touch, try, and taste everything,” says Cassady-Dorion. “They end up spending 30 or 40 minutes here; they’re talking to strangers, they’re pouring each other samples. It’s amazing.”
For more on olive oil, visit www.hvmag.com/recipes.