Olive oil's evolution

It's not just for stir-fries anymore, as infused and flavored oils have their moment in the spotlight

  • At L.O.V.E. (Lebherz Olive Oil and Vinegar Emporium), the oils are stored in large stainless steel canisters known as "fustis."
At L.O.V.E. (Lebherz Olive Oil and Vinegar Emporium), the oils… (Sarah Kickler Kelber, Baltimore…)
September 19, 2012|By Donna M. Owens, For The Baltimore Sun

It's been years since Maggie Lebherz lived in sunny Spain as a college exchange student. Yet just one taste of fresh olive oil takes her back in spirit.

"In 2007, I lived with a family in Salamanca, and my host mother cooked everything in olive oil, in a big cast-iron skillet," recalls Lebherz. "She rarely changed the oil, and it became spiced. Whether she was frying potatoes in olive oil or making paella, every meal was so delicious."

After Lebherz returned to the States and graduated from college, her cravings for the quality olive oil she'd enjoyed abroad turned her into an entrepreneur.

She launched Lebherz Oil & Vinegar Emporium (L.O.V.E.) in downtown Frederick in 2010. "We carry more than 50 artisanal olive oils and vinegars," says the 25-year-old proprietor. Our suppliers come from Italy, Tunisia, Spain, France and California, to name a few."

With boutique olive oil shops popping up in Maryland and nationwide, an award-winning restaurant near Boston named EVOO (the acronym for extra virgin olive oil), and new products that show its versatility, olive oil is enjoying the culinary spotlight.

"Americans consume [on average] more than a liter of olive each year in the U.S.," says Curtis Cord, executive editor of the Olive Oil Times, an online publication based in Rhode Island. "Greece consumes about 20 liters, so we have a ways to go. But there's definitely been growth in the U.S. in terms of its popularity."

That's good news for the Pompeian Olive Oil Company, which has operated in Baltimore since the early 1900s. The company imports freshly harvested, pressed olive oils from around the globe, which are bottled onsite.

Products include Classic Mediterranean Olive Oil and Extra Light Tasting Olive Oil, and Pompeian is among America's top-selling brands, according to company officials.

"We have seen olive oil catapult in terms of sales over the last 10 years," says Rich Fryling, vice president of marketing. "Today, people have a more sophisticated taste palate, the price of olive oil is significantly lower than it used to be, and people are more health-conscious."

It's true that olive oil boasts monounsaturated fats — the so-called good fats. Various studies have shown that the antioxidants in olive oil may help to reduce the risks of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol.

"Really, it's fruit juice," says Fryling. He notes that olive oil isn't vegetable-based, but is actually fruit oil that's been mechanically pressed from sun-ripened olives.

Owing to the vast array of olive varieties, the liquid can have variations in color (e.g., amber gold, pale green) and flavor (mild to peppery), as well as its bouquet.

"A good olive oil is beautifully perfumed," says Cindy Wolf, executive chef of Charleston, the award-winning restaurant in Harbor East where the seasonal menu may include lobster soup with curry or shrimp and grits.

Wolf, a James Beard nominee, says unequivocally that she loves olive oil, especially the extra virgin variety. "I think it's one of the best things you can work with," said wolf, who also co-owns several other Baltimore restaurants. "It tastes like fresh olives, and has such a wonderful flavor."

At Samos restaurant in Baltimore's Greektown community, olive oil is also the not-so-secret ingredient in their Mediterranean-inspired fare.

Whether it's garlicky roasted eggplant dip, whole red snapper broiled with lemon and herbs, or a Greek salad with vinaigrette, olive oil plays a starring role.

"We use a good olive oil that comes from Greece, and we go through gallons of it," says Michael Georgalas, whose family owns the popular restaurant. "We use it in different ways, sometimes in cooking applications, and at other times we drizzle it on top to finish a dish."

Locally, specialty shops give customers the option of sampling gourmet olive oils. At L.O.V.E., the oils are stored in large stainless-steel canisters known as "fustis" [pronounced foo-stees], making the process of sampling each variety evocative of a wine tasting.

"We pour all of our oils into custom glass bottles — straight from the tap," says Lebherz. "They're extremely fresh, light and pure."

The store's infused olive oil varieties include blood orange, herbs de Provence, Persian lime, and wild mushroom and sage. Among the big sellers is an olive oil that tastes like butter, which has been pressed from black olives.

"I've tried a lot of oils," she says, "but none that taste this fresh and delicious."

In July, Elizabeth Nuttle opened E.N. Olivier, a store in Bare Hills that stocks olive oils and vinegars, as well as gourmet condiments and salts and beauty products made from olive oil.

"I wanted to bring people around the bend and show them that it's not hard to cook good food with good ingredients," she said. Her shop stocks about 20 types of olive oil from around the world, each a "varietal" (meaning made from one type of olive), based on whatever is most fresh at any given time.

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