The magic of olive oil and balsamic vinegar

Published 5:47 pm Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Tryon shop brings the taste of the Med to the South

Swirl, sniff, slurp and swallow to savor a taste of myth and history, and to sample the flavor and aroma of the oil of a fruit descended from the legendary tree planted by Athena on the Acropolis.

As a magical gift to the Greeks, the olive was credited as a source of food, medicine, fragrance, light and heat. Romantics rumor that the olive tree now on the hill springs from the original divine roots.

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Archaeological evidence, with greater factual credence, dates the olive as one of the oldest cultivated trees, grown before a nameless Sumerian first inscribed language on limestone. This same family of fruit most likely financed Minoan civilization.

Bull leaping acrobats on Crete in 1400 B.C. would have known the nuances of its different oils. As a lubricant for civilization, olive oil would have been found in transport across ancient Roman trade routes, and eventually far beyond.

Across centuries and continents, the journey has come to 10 N. Trade St. in Tryon, arriving in 35-pound polyethylene jugs rather than ceramic two-handled amphorae.

From the bulk jugs, store manager Jessica Phillips fills 15-liter stainless steel fustis for dispensing into 100, 250 or 500 mL glass bottles, each neatly labeled with the name “A Taste of Olives & Grapes.”

Twenty of the 38 fustis contain olive oils meticulously selected from about 2,000 varietals in 599 extant olive species of the world. The other 18 fustis dispense balsamic vinegars.

Jessica talks first about her family’s olive travels and quest. Her mother and stepdad, Kimberly and Ronald Tarach, own Qual-Tech Inc., and travel the world consulting on quality control processes and certifications for aerospace, defense, nuclear and other heavily regulated industries.

“They would bring home gifts of olive oils and vinegars [they] tasted while traveling…Italy, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, South Africa…other places,” Jessica says.

“I always liked to cook. I was managing a pub in Oregon and cross trained into the kitchen, and learned to make a special raspberry vinaigrette. I got serious about the versatility, anti-oxidant properties and other health benefits of oil and vinegar, and started tastings for friends at my home using Mom’s gifts and what I could find locally.

“Mom, seeing an opportunity to work together as a family, had the idea for a store that could help a home cook transform easily into a gourmet chef…where a family could be indulged without spending a fortune.”

Kimberly and Ron founded the store, and established management practices based on the strict quality control principles of their consulting business. As store president and chief operating officer, respectively, they and Jessica source suppliers with on-site visits to evaluate quality control processes.

In routine store operations, Kimberly and Ron are mostly behind the scenes.

“They are hands on when here, refilling fustis and filling orders for customers,” Jessica says. “My stepdad wants every label he applies to be bubble free and perfectly aligned going out the door.”

The three of them enjoy chatting with customers on how to fully enjoy the olive oil experience, even with a sampler cup.

Place your palm over the cup, swirl the oil to release the aroma and sniff. As with wine, even if you can’t find words to describe the olfactory sensation, you will have a personal reaction across the range of pleasantness.

Slurp, and feel no embarrassment at making a sound. Sucking in air with the oil coats the top of the mouth and tongue for optimum experience. Finally, swallow and savor the finish.

“Finding suppliers to meet our criteria for consistent quality is a hard, ongoing job, so finding a great supplier is a trade secret,” Kimberly says.

“We define quality as organic certified, a cold first pressing and free of olive byproducts.” Jessica adds. “Right now, we’ve refined the oil selection in our store to those made from Italian Ogliarola, California Arbequina, Greek Kalamata, Spanish Picual and Chilean Frantoio. These will change depending on vintage, season and conditions at the growers.”

There are no grapes per se at A Taste of Olives & Grapes, but balsamic vinegars at the store are Trebbiano grapes, pressed and boiled to “must,” a dark syrup rich with skins, seeds and fruit, then aged for 12 years in increasingly smaller wood kegs of chestnut, cherry, ash, mulberry and juniper. The final velvety reduction can add intrigue to any food, alone or when mixed with olive oil as a vinaigrette.

Based on the Qual-Tech standards, the family works with the only balsamic vinegar supplier who reliably delivers 80 percent “must” for sweetness and 20 percent wine vinegar for bite.

“No need to swirl and sniff balsamic vinegar, just go right to the sip,” Jessica says. “A drizzle of blackberry adds an extra dimension to plain vanilla ice cream, and a brownie with cranberry orange becomes sinful.”

The first reference to balsamic vinegar is 1046, Reggio, Italy. History has no obvious record of who first mixed balsamic vinegar with olive oil, but the word “vinaigrette” was first used in English in 1699.

Today, Jessica simply says with a smile, “For adding depth of flavor, oil and vinegar is an emulsification made in heaven.”

Jessica sees her primary job as education.

“With so many great cooks in our small town, I like hearing someone say, ‘I had no idea,’” she says. “One of the best compliments is ‘I tried your recommendation and the family loved it.’

“I reach out with Ladies Nights and other events, such as our November dog adoption party in November with the Foothills Humane Society, to share my excitement I feel for the history and romance of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the experimentation and possibilities.

“Consider that with the 20 olive oils currently in the store and the 18 vinegars, a customer can mix 360 possible vinaigrettes at a 2:1 ratio. For another 360, a cook can try a 3:1 ratio. Surprises are countless when trying different combination ratios to suit your taste.”

There are so many ways to taste the magic. •

A photo waits in all things, all places, and everyone with a passion has a story to be told. That’s the perspective Vince Verrecchio, lightly retired ad agency creative director, brings as a writer and photographer contributing to Foothills Magazine. He can be reached at