In this four-part series, food writer Laurie Triplette will focus on demystifying olive oil, which has been a darling of the American food world for years. Triplette claims that the world of olive oil contains as many mysteries as most Southern families hide in our gene pools.
The Old Bride had a transformative experience last month, and it wasn’t at church. While visiting family in East Memphis, I discovered a new specialty food shop dedicated to selling authentic, high quality olive oils. The shop is The Mighty Olive, located at 4615 Poplar, Suite 18 in The Laurelwood Collection, across Perkins Extended from Oak Court. The Mighty Olive also carries high quality balsamic vinegars and a line of handcrafted pastas.
My first thought was, how could olive oil justify an entire store? Mighty Olive store owners Sam and Carol Braslow set out to show me. After several hours of tasting, and a variety of purchases that I have now used in dishes for the past month, let me tell you, there’s no going back to grocery-store brands.
The Braslows’ enthusiasm was so infectious and their olive oils so delicious that I embarked on a month-long self-education about the world of olive oil. This is an education that might become a lifelong addiction.
Says Carol Braslow, “There is no such thing as ‘regular’ olive oil. Olives are like varieties of apples. They all have differing flavors affected by the soil, the weather, and what other plants are around the olive trees.”
The oils at The Mighty Olive are all kosher and gluten-free, and have been graded as premium or ultra premium extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), which are the highest grade standards set by the IOC and USDA and other agencies around the world.
All oils at The Mighty Olive are from a California-based olive oil company called Veronica Foods (VF), started by Veronica and Michael Bradley. NOTE: California is the center of the American olive oil industry, and like its wine industry, has been gaining strength on the world stage for quality. The VF olive oils are bottled from the highest-grade harvests selected by VF from sources all over the world, including California and other locales in both the northern and southern hemispheres.
“We first experienced the VF quality in an olive oil store during a trip to Pensacola, FL, Sam said.
“We came home and wanted to create for ourselves a constant source for good olive oils here in Memphis. The only way to do that was to open our own store. Naturally, we looked at Veronica Foods. We looked at other wholesale suppliers, and we concluded that Veronica and Michael Bradley were the best suppliers for us. They are committed to presenting the best quality from every harvest. I also found VF to have somewhat broader selection of products than some other franchisers.“
VF actually owns a grove and state-of-the-art mill in Tunisia, and collaborates with small growers and mills throughout the world to bottle the highest quality oils from the latest harvests. VF imports more than a million gallons of extra virgin olive oil into the U.S. annually, and exclusively supplies over 200 stand-alone olive oil and vinegar stores in the U.S., in addition to operating its own store in Berkeley, CA. They maintain that exclusivity by limiting their distribution within geographic locales. Respected internationally for its focus on high quality, VF supplied the 2014 winter Olympics.
Carol said that being a VF stand-alone store has proven advantageous for carrying the latest crush-dates of high quality oils from Europe, the Middle East, the U.S., and the southern hemisphere producers in Africa, Australia and South America.
She noted that The Mighty Olive deliberately does not overstock any of its oils in order to avoid potential deterioration of the product. All oils at The Mighty Olive are stored sealed in a controlled environment to preserve the freshness.
“It took me a little adjustment before I totally understood that we would be focusing on carrying and offering the best harvests wherever and whenever they occur. About four times a year or more, VF sends us the latest crush harvests from wherever they are produced,” Carol said.
“We currently have 54 varieties of extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars,” Sam added.
“The quantity changes with the seasons. For example, our fused cayenne pepper EVOO is produced once a year when the chetoui olives are harvested in Tunisia.”
He said that all Mighty Olive selections are what he and Carol like. “We strive to have a variety of flavored and unflavored and types of EVOO and vinegars. I have tried every oil and vinegar that we stock. There have been some we have tested and didn’t like, so we don’t carry them. We also listen to the customers for suggestions of products that we need to handle.”
He noted, “Once you taste good quality olive oils, you will begin to tell when an oil is ‘off,’ or just not very good. Any oil that tastes greasy is problematic. It means the oil is degraded. … And don’t worry about destroying health benefits when heating the oils. Olive oil has a fairly high smoke point. Sauté-ing, stir-fry and frying all are done below that point.”
Since opening last November, the couple has provided community services when appropriate, such as donating the oils and vinegars for a fundraising event at the Dixon Gallery. They also offer special in-store events to promote the oils and vinegars, including a series of cooking workshops that to date have been conducted by L’Ecole Culinaire instructor, Chef Spencer McMillin. The first workshop had 12 participants, the second 14, and the upcoming workshop on May 3 has been expanded to include 24 participants.
“Chef McMillin is wonderful. He stresses that you don’t have to be a ‘cook’ to make good food. I don’t consider myself a cook. Before these workshops, I never realized how simple it is to make a good dressing … among other things, he showed us how a bit of Dijon mustard or honey will act as an emulsifier to blend the oil and vinegar.
She added, “We’ve been charging $12 per participant for the workshop. They get a free lunch out of it. (The May workshop lunch will include lasagna, a lintel dish and salads.) In about an hour and a half, the participants learn how to combine oils and vinegars with other ingredients simply to create wonderful dishes.”
Carol pointed out that product freshness is stressed by olive oil purveyors and chefs like McMillin.
“Olive oil is the opposite of wine — it gets worse with age, not better,” Sam said.
“If there is any indication of rancidity, it is immediately removed from sale. But because of the high product turnover and initial high quality from the supplier, that has been an infrequent occurrence.
“Rule of thumb is that an oil will be good for up to two years from first crush date, and it starts to deteriorate as soon as opened. It should be used within about six months or sooner. We try to educate our customers to the necessity of proper storage of their olive oils. If stored improperly, even the best quality premium extra virgin olive oil will turn rancid or at least lose its positive attributes,” he said.
“Ideally, olive oil should be stored in stainless steel or dark colored bottles in a cool, dark place away from the stove to prevent ultraviolet light from contact with the oil — preferably at temperatures between 45 and 65˚F.”
He noted that storage in the refrigerator is acceptable, although room temperature storage is best for the highest quality oils. NOTE: Solidification when refrigerated is not a predictable method for determining whether or not an olive oil is pure. All olive oils will congeal under refrigeration in varying degrees.
Sam explained out that grocery store brands of olive oils with consistent mild flavor have been altered or adulterated to maintain sameness.
What do the Braslows think about the overall quality and desirability of extra light or light olive oils?
Sam was emphatic in his disdain.
“The so-called lightness is from the color. LIGHT olive oils have the same fat content as EVOO, but with the flavor and nutrients removed. Only in American could you market LIGHT olive oil!”
MISSISSIPPI-REGION RETAIL SOURCES FOR HIGH QUALITY OLIVE OILS
(Apologies to any stores that we might have missed.)
Strippaggio Olive Oils & Vinegars
Promenade at Chenal
17815 Chenal Pkwy Suite 111
Little Rock, AR 72223
Oil & Vinegar
6111 Pinnacle Pkwy
Covington, LA 70433
Deep South Oil & Vinegar
1463 St. Charles Street
Houma, LA 70360
Pass Christian Olive Oils and Vinegars
141 Davis Avenue
Pass Christian, MS
Olivia Olive Oil
443 Cool Springs Blvd Suite 103
Franklin, TN 37067
The Mighty Olive
4615 Poplar Avenue
(The Laurelwood Collection Shopping Center)
Memphis, TN 38117
Epicurian Olive Oil Company, LLC
2615 Medical Center Pkwy
The Avenue #2070
Murfreesboro, TN 37129
Olive Oil Store
4117 Hillsboro Pike Suite 102
Nashville, TN 37215
Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian, and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ), Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SOFAB). Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ web site: www.tripleheartpress.com and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter (@LaurieTriplette).