While we’ve been inundated with news about the health benefits of olive oil, the process of shopping for a bottle at the supermarket or Italian food shops is less well-defined. In fact, it can be downright confusing, if not daunting. The prices range wildly, and even those of us who don’t mind spending a bit more money on good quality pantry staples wonder how much is too much to spend on salad dressing basics.
How can we choose between the $17 bottle and one that’s $37? How do we know when we’re paying for fancy marketing or worse — how do we know the bottle contains what it claims it does: 100% pure extra-virgin olive oil (adulterated and even fake oil is apparently widespread according to Tom Mueller in his book “Extra Virginity: the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil” — a great book, by the way).
Two independently-owned olive oil boutiques have launched in Ottawa in recent weeks, offering a new way to shop for oils and vinegars. It’s part of the wave of tasting bars that have supposedly become a retail craze across North America and Europe.
I visited Emulsify, the olive oil bar on Wellington St. W. but I understand the shopping experience is similar at The Unrefined Olive (151A Second Ave.) in the Glebe. Both shops are dedicated to extra-virgin cold-pressed olive oils and aged balsamic vinegars, but rather than choosing by price, the name of the game appears to be flavour — dozens of them.
So while there were just three basic extra virgin olive oils (Italy, Spain, and Greece are represented at Emulsify so far), there are more than 20 different oils in flavours like Chipotle and Meyer lemon and a dozen or so vinegars infused with things like Cinnamon Pear and Espresso. There’s even an olive oil that is flavoured to taste like the butter at movie theatres. Prices are reasonable and largely standardized ($19.95 will get you a 375 mL bottle of most items) and customers browse by reading pairing suggestions and tasting notes off the large stainless-steel containers in which the products are stored and tapped like a maple tree for requested samples that come in tiny plastic cups.
The endless opportunities to customize and mix-and-match flavours makes the shopping experience feel more Willy Wonka than Epicurean — a swig of Blood Orange oil emulsified by toothpick with the fig balsamic reminded me of a mouthful of Skittles. The fact that salad dressing can be akin to a custom-made suit strikes me as a perfect fit for our Internet age in which catering to individual tastes preferences is what truly sells.
Jesseka Blom, owner of Emulsify and a registered nurse, hopes to introduce her customers to the idea of using olive oil for more than just salads and for dipping bread. She recommends using them in stir-fries, in baking, and as pasta sauces, or as a condiment to be used for meat, fish, and vegetables; even poured over popcorn or ice cream.
“My favourite used to be the chocolate balsamic vinegar on ice cream, but then I tried the blood orange olive oil on ice cream and converted,” she says.
She has been surprised that more familiar flavours like basil and jalapeno aren’t as popular as unique ones like Portobello or sundried tomato and garlic oil. She says, “People are looking for something really unique.”
Location: Emulsify 1283-B Wellington St. W., 613-695-6457.
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.