The Grand Flavors of Olive Grand
– Julia Crowley, EDN
“Come inside. The flavors are waiting” is the motto of one of Oregon’s only few oil tasting bars and gift shop, Olive Grand. Although it’s a well-known fact that I’m an avid enthusiast of flavorful foods, I hadn’t yet explored the world of olive oils until my recent visit to this Mediterranean inspired gem located in downtown Eugene.
Upon entering the Olive Grand, I immediately noticed the gleaming, stainless steel containers lined meticulously along the Tuscan colored walls, and as I got closer, I noticed each container was labeled with the name of the content that it housed: Pear Champagne Vinegar, Blood Orange Olive Oil, Wild Cherry Balsamic Vinegar, and Greek Kalamata Olive Oil were just a few of the many labeled containers.
I was quickly greeted with a welcoming smile from owner, Tamara, and I could hardly wait to tantalize my taste buds with some of the many flavors waiting to be sampled; however, my curiosity about the gleaming containers prompted me to find out more about their use, and how they came to grace the colorful walls of the Olive Grand.
“They’re called Fustis”, Tamara said. A Fusti is a seamless, stainless steel tank that’s manufactured exclusively in Italy. These tanks have been used in Italian households for decades for storing and dispensing olive oils, vinegars and wine. Their unique construction minimizes exposure to air and light, which extends the life of the product being stored. So each of Olive Grands 26 olive oils and vinegars are properly stored in one of these shining, eye catching Fustis. But the story behind the idea of opening an olive oil tasting bar and retail shop, adorned with these shiny silver Fustis, began with a trip that Tamara and Mike, owners of Olive Grand, took to France.
Since they were both aficionados of good food and wine, Tamara and Mike decided to visit France in 2006, a country that is famed for both world renowned food and wine. They both fell in love with the warmth of the European culture and traditions, and when they returned to their home state of Wisconsin, they were hoping to find something local that had the same flare as many of the places they had visited in France.
After some research, they found a little place (The Oilerie) in a small town in Wisconsin that offered self-serve varieties of olive oils. Astounded by the flavors that existed in the oils they tasted at this tourist hot spot, they were eager to find out more, but finding no information on what to pair the oils with or how to use them for cooking, they immediately thought that an olive oil tasting could be conducted much like a wine tasting, and offer an educational experience rather than just a simple tasting. They imagined a retail shop and tasting bar filled with flavorful olive oils and gourmet foods. Their ‘olive oil tasting bar’ was a passionate concept for the next 3 years, but this concept didn’t start to take shape until Mike left the company he had been working for in 2009. This was a turning point in their lives, so they decided to take a vacation to think about their future. Having been to Oregon only one time before, their memories of Oregon’s beauty prompted them to make Eugene, Oregon their vacation destination.
As destiny would have it, the person they sat next to on the plane just happened to be good friends with someone he thought could be a benefit to Mike & Tamara: a sensory scientist who specialized in olive oil and wine. This good friend of their traveling seat mate had just recently returned from New Zealand, where she spent six years putting together the country’s first olive oil tasting panel, so her credentials clearly proved her expertise. Currently living in Corvallis, this sensory scientist later became the teacher for Tamara & Mikes sensory training that prepared them to be professional tasters of the exotic flavors of olive oils. After some training and research, Mike & Tamara realized their concept of an olive oil shop and tasting room would best become a reality in Oregon, where they knew they would be the state’s first oil tasting bar. Because of their passion for good, locally produced food and wine, they chose to plant their roots in the heart of the southern Willamette Valley wine region, on one of the busiest streets of downtown Eugene, Willamette Street.
With a palate that’s been trained by an expert, Tamara was ready to entice my taste buds with the ultimate olive oil tasting experience. Beginning in what she dubbed as the “white wine” tasting area, there were 7 different bottles that housed different varieties of olives, some of which were mono-varietals, oil from a single variety of olive, and some were blended oils made from several different varieties of olives. Ranging in flavors from delicate to robust, the first sample she gave me was the Arbequina Blend. Served in a sample size 1 oz. cup, I was instructed to warm the olive oil by placing the cup in the palm of my hand and swirling it while cupping my hand over the top. After swirling and removing my hand from the top of the cup, the intense aromas of the olive oil took me by surprise, and I immediately noticed grassy, fresh herbal scents. On the palate, there was no oily mouth feel; in fact, it was crisp, light and well balanced with a smooth slightly peppery finish. This was an olive oil that could be used in everyday cooking, mainly because of it’s delicate intensity.
The next oil I tasted was the Organic Delicata olive oil, and scents of freshly rubbed tomato leaves took over my senses. Picked at the peak of perfection, these olives result in an impeccable buttery flavor; ironically, this is the perfect olive oil to use in place of butter or margarine in recipes.
The next olive oil Tamara picked for me to sample was an oil with medium intensity, the Greek Kalamata. Once again, there was no oily texture; instead, it was crisp and complex with a peppery finish that was a bit more intense than the finish on the Arbequina Blend. When Tamara added a few drops of the Pear Champagne Vinegar into my cup with the Kalamata Olive Oil, the flavors popped and all I could say was, “wow!” The sweet and tangy flavors of the vinegar combined with the white peppery flavors of the olive oil resulted in a zesty pairing, and I was truly impressed with the outcome of the palate pleasing combination that created a certain gusto of flavor.
The last olive oil I tasted from the “white wine” tasting area was Olive Grands most robust olive oil, the Tuscan Blend. Tamara gave me a fair warning that this was a 3 cough olive oil. Apparently, when experts taste olive oils, they judge their peppery finishes by the amount of coughs one will have after swallowing a sample. The amount of coughs indicates the intensity of the pepper-like finish. With fresh green grassy aromas, this oil had an elegant mouth feel, and the finish was smooth, and I thought about the “3 cough” warning as I swallowed down my sample, but it was, instead, very smooth. Suddenly, the peppery finish made its way back to the rear part of my tongue, and there was no stopping the cough…three times to be exact. When Tamara added a dash of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, the peppery notes were toned down and replaced with the tangy sweetness of the aged vinegar.
It was time to move to the “red wine” tasting area of the tasting bar, where the oils were flavored with different fruits and herbs. 9 flavors in all, I was intrigued particularly by the Blood Orange, Lime, Mandarin, Basil, and Chili. The flavored balsamic vinegars were neatly lined up in this area too, which included flavors like Wild Cherry, Fig, Peach and Red Apple.
Starting out with the Mandarin Olive Oil, the distinctive mandarin aromas and flavors were impressive. Rich and very smooth, Tamara said that a customer favorite is the Peach Balsamic Vinegar tossed in a fruit salad and drizzled with Mandarin Orange olive oil. Drizzling olive oil over fruit is not something I would have ever thought about doing before my visit to Olive Grand; however, the more olive oil cooking quick-tips Tamara shared with me, the more I realized that olive oil can enhance the flavors of a number of unexpected foods: pound cake, vanilla bean ice cream, gelato and dark chocolate are just a few of the many pairings that Tamara suggested.
I also tried the the Lime Olive Oil blended with a few drops of the Wild Cherry Balsamic Vinegar and experienced another “wow” factor of perplexing and complimenting flavors, and again with the Basil Olive Oil blended with the Pear Champagne Vinegar.
The last olive oil I tried, and my absolute favorite, was the Chili Olive Oil. The nutty & sesame seed flavors had a powerful drive on the finish, yet the mouth feel was smooth and creamy. Visions of cooking stir fry’s and tossing freshly cooked pasta with this olive oil bustled through my head, and I also thought this oil would make a great marinade for meats and vegetables. Much to my surprise, Tamara picked out the Peach Balsamic Vinegar and added a few drops in with the Chili Olive Oil, and the blending of spicy chili flavors and sweet peach flavors were unexpectedly a perfectly scrumptious combination. Truly a superb ending to an educational and flavor-filled tasting experience.
Before departing, with the Chili Olive Oil & Peach Balsamic Vinegar in hand, I browsed through the many other captivating items in the store. There were hand crafted pastas; such as, Pumpkin Spice Fettuccini, Wild Mushroom Linguini and Black Olive Linguini. They offer an extensive line of organic seasonings that include several interesting salts, including the Himalayan Pink Salt, Smoked Sea Salt and a Black Lava Salt. They have a vast selection of different kinds of high quality organic teas, and a section dedicated to martini’s with a helpful recipe book and local olives. Future plans include and expansion to the popular martini section.
Mike and Tamara are dedicated to supporting local businesses, and many of their products are produced and grown locally. They have local artists creations hanging on the walls which they rotate every few months, and they’ve even worked with a local box making company to create the perfect gift box for their products which neatly holds one each of an olive oil and a vinegar, a container of seasoning and two pour spouts for the oil and vinegar bottles. You can choose your own flavors, or pick a pre-made box of suggested pairings. In addition to the abundant selection of gourmet food items, they sell cook books, aprons, and other kitchen related items, but I can hardly wait until they start stocking the shelves with local and international wines in addition to creating gift boxes that will hold a bottle of wine along with the olive oil, vinegar and seasoning and pour spouts.
Until my recent educational and extremely flavorful experience at Olive Grand, I didn’t know that olive oils and balsamic vinegars had the capacity to exhibit such exotic and indulgent expressions. Mike and Tamara hit the nail on the head when they thought of their undeniably true motto, “Come inside. The flavors are waiting.”
To explore a world of flavors, simply visit Olive Grand at 1041 Willamette Street in downtown Eugene.