Not All Olive Oils Are Worth the Money (But This One Is)

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Editor's note: Zingerman's sells Kokoraki Olive Oil on its website for $35 per 500-milliliter bottle. Ari writes more about olive oil in Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating.

I know it's no big deal these days to put a big selection of "high-end" olive oils on shelves. Seriously, without that much work, you can find 50 brands, each with a nice label, each saying "first cold pressed," each with a seemingly fancy pedigree on its back label.

But each oil at the Deli and Mail Order is there for a reason—the region, the style, the flavor, the character of the oil all come into play. We probably taste 10 or 15 new oils every month that are "applying" for a spot on our shelves. But of those, we take on, at most, maybe one or two. And when a new one comes in, that generally means that one has to go—the Deli's not a very big space. While you might think this is what every store does, it's not the way it is most places. There just aren't very many places (there are some other good ones, for sure) you can go where every single item has really been chosen specifically for flavor, where every oil is on the shelf for a reason, and that reason is never just that the distributor had it on special.

The Kokoraki olive oil from Zakynthos was an easy one to add to the list. It's pretty special stuff for most every reason you can think of—like the Dos Cafeteras coffee candies, it's a good story, a good product, and it also has great design. It scores high on every count: It tastes great, it comes from a place from which we have no other oils, it's uses a varietal we've never carried before, and it's made by people with whom we have a long-standing personal relationship. The bottom line is ... it's excellent, especially so on the salad I wrote about with the figs, feta, and hazelnuts.

Even if you don't want to taste the actual oil, at least ask for a smell. I love the aroma so much that I seriously feel like I want to surround myself with the scent.

Many folks here know Daphne Zepos because we import our Comté through her little company, Essex St. Cheese, or because she comes here to co-teach the ZingTrain Cheese Mastery course with Carlos. I've known her since something like 1995 when we met up in the northern Greek mountain town of Metsovo. This exceptionally good oil is from the farm her sister Amalia, and her brother-in-law, Stathis Potamitis, have on the Greek island of Zakynthos. Located in the Ionian Sea, off the western coast of the Peloponnesian Peninsula, Zakynthos is known for its amazing beaches, its high numbers of hard-to-find-elsewhere sea turtles, its currants, and the quality of its olive oil. By doing all the little, not very glamorous things that it takes to make a great oil, Amalia, and Stathis, have really crafted a pretty amazing offering.

Even if you don't want to taste the actual oil, at least ask for a smell. I love the aroma so much that I seriously feel like I want to surround myself with the scent. Of course, personally, I'd taste it; the more I taste the Kokoraki the more I like it, which given how much oil I get to taste is pretty surely a very good sign. While the flavor of the oil is big, the project itself is pretty small-scale by most standards. The land has been owned by the family for nigh on 180 years. Coincidentally, that's also roughly the number of trees they have. The whole year's production is very small and we liked it so much we worked it out with Amalia to take everything she doesn't set aside for the family to use over the course of the year. Thanks to Grace, Vanessa, and the retail and receiving crews for doing the actual bottling and labeling here in Ann Arbor.

The olives Amalia and Stathis are growing are the Koromiko and Zakynthos Dopier varietals, organically grown. All the olives are picked by hand, then pressed the same day they're gathered from the tree. They leave it all unfiltered because they, like me, like their oil that way. Leaves a bigger mouthfeel, and often a bit of added punch to the flavor.

Speaking of the flavor . . . to my taste, this is one really good, really complex oil. The aroma really is pretty amazing. Nice big nose that makes me want to crawl inside the bottle. Flavor of . . . argali, a bit of pepper, olive. As Jason Hogan, who works on the retail line at the Deli, said, "It's peppery but not too peppery; it's got some grass to it, but it's not like a whole lawn." Got me laughing when he said that last bit, but it's a nice description, so there you have it.

Aside from the fig and feta salad I like the Kokoraki poured onto warm peasant bread (which is or course very good with any olive oil). But of late, I've actually loved it a lot on toasted Roadhouse bread too—the flavor of the cornmeal and the molasses in the bread actually go great with the oil. The Kokoraki is pretty marvelous on slices of fresh mozzarella with roasted peppers and fresh herbs. Excellent on roasted fish—a little of this oil poured on top after you take the fish out from under the broiler would be a beautiful thing to be around, for the smell of the oil after it hits the hot fish, for the sight of the green oil surrounding the light gold-white color of the fish, and for the flavor: mild but flavorful fish with a fruity green olive oil! A sprinkle of sea salt is honestly all you need to add.

You, of course, can enjoy it any way you like! Ask for a taste next time you're in. And if you'd like to talk directly to Daphne about oil, Greek food, cheese, life, or most anything else of interest, you can email her at daphnezepos@gmail.com.

The label, by the way, was designed by our own graphics crew—lots of greens and yellows with a little rooster woven into the design on the front. The latter is, in fact, the meaning of the name Kokoraki. I guess I could tell you that the oil is so good you'll be crowing when you eat it, or that the olives are picked by specially trained roosters, but in truth the name has no connection to the oil's flavor and it just appealed to Daphne and Amalia for its simple country nature. Which, I suppose, when all is said and done, is really what appeals to me about the oil in the first place. Good stuff, from good people.

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Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.
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