Saturday, April 05, 2008

My Annual Pilgrimage to O&Co. for Extra Virgins

A few years ago when I was burned by the dot-com bust (Part Uno), I took a part-time job at Oliviers and Co. working as a clerk at its Fillmore store. This is how I learned everything I needed to know about premium extra virgin olive oil.

All of the olive oil at the store, now known simply as O&Co., are imported from Europe. No California olive oils are sold, primarily because the founder doesn’t believe the California olive trees have matured to the point to deliver the same quality of oil as those produced in Europe. There might be a big debate about this among Californians, but having tasted the oils at O&Co. and tasting some California oils in Napa Valley, I tend to agree. It’s hard for the California oils to measure up.

The extra virgin olive oils come primarily from Italy and France, and are such a premium that they sell for more than $30 a bottle, most typically around $45. This is why—no longer having an employee discount—I come to buy my supply of olive oil just once a year. Then I take my selection home and use them sparingly, mostly as a finisher to a dish like pasta or meats or as a base for salad dressing. You never cook with O&Co.’s premium oils. (Although, they now offer a cheap olive oil for cooking but really you can just get a generic extra virgin olive oil from Trader Joe’s.)

A couple of weekends ago, I went to check out the oils at O&Co. Its tiny Fillmore store was the first store to open on the West Coast. (Eventually they opened stores in Seattle, Los Angeles and New York.) When it’s busy, you can hardly maneuver yourself around the narrow store without worrying that you might knock down a bottle of $42 olive oil.

Along with a wall of extra virgin olive oils (now sold in bottles; they were mostly sold in cans when I worked there), there are a variety of olive oil-related products, including olive oil soap. (The company also owns L’Occitane and many of the O&Co. products can be found at some L’Occitane outlets such as the one at the Embarcadero 1 in the Financial District.) But there are also vinegars, cruets, herbs and spices, sea salt, and even dried pasta. The company has branched out to many specialty gourmet items that use olive oil as a base since I worked there. So now you can find special mustards, flavored honey and tapenades. (Many of the products are small enough that they make great hostess gifts.)

What’s really great about the store is that there’s an actual tasting bar where you can try the oils to decide which one you want. This is a big deal if you’re going to put down all that money. When I worked there, a few customers would sometimes ask where’s the bread to dip in the oil? But when we did tastings, we just gave a tiny plastic spoon of the oil because that way you taste just the oil and not the bread.

The vast majority of the oils are not flavored, instead carrying only the essence of its growing environment. The oils can be described as grassy or buttery or nutty. Some of my favorite oils come, of course, from Provence, which have slight floral tastes. For more bold oils, I’ll try a Sicilian oil.

Because most Americans are used to flavored oil, I’ve noticed that O&Co. over the years have added more flavored options. Before it was only basil and lemon, but now it’s grown to Mandarin Oranges, Mint and the new Bergamot (which is the base for Earl Grey tea). Most people love the basil for its intense aroma and flavor, but I’m not a big fan of that. My all-time favorite is the Lemon because I love lemony flavors and this captures the intense flavor of the lemon.

I love the lemon oil so much that I used to drizzle a little bit of it on top of French vanilla ice cream and I would get this wonderful lemon ice cream treat. (I find no one makes lemon ice cream, just sorbets.) I don’t do this as often any more because I’ve cut down on my ice cream eating at home.

I left O&Co. on this recent visit with my replacement can of lemon oil and the Bergamot to give it a try. (It’s very perfume like, so it’ll be a challenge thinking what to drizzle it on. Maybe another dessert?) I also got a can of the Greek oil because it’s the most versatile and affordable. I also picked up a tiny bottle of mustard infused with the flavors of three different berries.

The Pacific Heights neighborhood is a fun place to walk around on a sunny weekend, so the next time you’re enjoying the day strolling the neighborhood, you should visit the O&Co. store to transport yourself to the Mediterranean. If I could afford to soak myself in this oil, you know I would.

O&Co., 2208 Fillmore St. (at California), San Francisco. PH: 415.474.1408. Web site.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was a very informative and useful post, Single Guy! I am only just beginning to apprehend that there even *are* nuances in oil -- a stage in life comparable to the one when we were first married and had the notion that perfectly drinkable wine actually came in gallon jugs with screw tops ;-) I will pass this link on to a couple of my local foodie friends, and maybe we can have a tasting trip to The City someday soon.

Thanks for the tips!