Olive oil has a long and fruitful history. When ancient civilizations took root in the Mediterranean, olive trees were abundant and quite literally ripe for the picking. Homer wrote about the restorative properties of olive oil in The Odyssey, Germanic barbarians adopted it as a staple of their diet as they converted to Christianity (animal fat wasn’t permitted on Fridays and holy days), and today, many American home cooks consider it a basic kitchen staple. With so many options at the supermarket, why bother going to a special store to buy a smaller, more expensive bottle?
It’s about the quality. “People are paying more attention to what they’re eating and how they’re cooking,” says Richard Cozza, co-owner of the Twisted Branch in Valhalla, the latest store to open in Westchester with a focus on olive oil. A 2011 study from the University of California, Davis Olive Center, found that roughly 70 percent of extra-virgin olive oil on supermarket shelves either didn’t meet the criteria to be called extra-virgin or was so old and degraded that it had lost the designation. At Twisted Branch, which opened its doors in April, customers can rest assured that the products are legitimate because every bottle is lab tested before it reaches the shelf. Along with six extra-virgin varieties, including a custom house blend, customers can find rare bottles of award-winning Bramasole, produced on Under the Tuscan Sun author Frances Mayes’ Italian estate.
At Pure Mountain Olive Oil in Tarrytown and Bronxville, Wolfgang Foust strives to find the right olive oil for patrons, who are encouraged to sample the rotating selection from silver containers that line the walls. Discovering whether you prefer buttery Californian oil or peppery, green Coratina from Italy is all part of the fun. What you do with it is up to you, but the company’s website offers recipe suggestions and tips.
At Hudson Valley Olive Oil in Mount Kisco, store manager Beth Falcon emphasizes that “freshness is key—olive oil loses a lot of its nutritional value as it gets older.” The narrow store carries only single origin olive oils—produced from a single variety of olive—and swaps out their selection twice a year, once for olive oils from Southern Hemisphere locations like Chile, Peru, and Australia, and again to bring in European oils from well-known producers like Italy, Greece, and Spain.
It’s not just stores that are upping their extra-virgin game, restaurants are selling premium bottles too. Fig & Olive in Scarsdale focuses on olive oil as its star ingredient—the menu doesn’t include butter or other fats. An entire wall is devoted to a wide selection of olive oils from the company’s own label and from its favorite producers. At Mint Premium Foods in Tarrytown, proprietor Hassan Jarane believes “there’s no reason to carry 500 olive oils when you can pick up the three best ones.” Jarane offers only three choices from Portugal, Spain, and Crete, which he also serves to diners with a drizzle of lavender honey.
Still on the fence about ditching your favorite supermarket brand? Check out any of these stores and sample the goods. “Once you taste it and become educated,” says Falcon, “you won’t go back to grocery store brands.”