As Fancy Soap Goes, So Goes Olive Oil


Fiore Artisan Olive Oils and Vinegars

Rockland report: on my lobster-gluttony weekend in Maine, about which more soon, we walked up and down the main drag of Rockland, as we always do while working up an appetite for limitless lobster. The blue-collar town I knew when we first started our family summer visits, in 1968, evolved during the most recent economic boom into an unrecognizably twee resort town, reminiscent of Rockland but less aggressively preppy and more interestingly bohemian, as befits a town the lived on fishing and then became a refuge for artists—the Farnsworth Museum is something of a shrine to the Wyeth family (the Olson House, in Cushing, where Andrew Wyeth painted Cristina's World, is now part of the Farnsworth). My current favorite feature of the Rockland streetscape is a huge flashing sign that Robert Indiana, who lives and works on Vinalhaven, an island artist's colony a short, 15-mile ferry ride away, made for the 1964 World's Fair. It hadn't been seen for 44 years until the Farnsworth mounted it atop its own building, last year; amazingly enough, the museum shop doesn't have a postcard of what should be a food-world icon.

At the far end of town we found a surprising addition to the shops where, as our hostess, Erika Pilver, tartly remarked, "You can't find anything you need": Fiore Artisan Olive Oils and Vinegars, a store that sells only olive oils, balsamic vinegars, and related condiments and spreads. It seemed much more suited to Camden than Rockland—and even more suited to Bar Harbor, where in fact the shop originated, as the husband of the husband-and-wife team that started this shop this year, Pat and Nancy O'Brien, explained.

Every oil I tasted—I draw the line at non-citrus flavors—was okay, and the one I bought, with many green notes, a bit better.

I looked askance. This looked to be a very poor way to treat a product that deteriorates with every transfer from press to tank to bottle. The model seems to be scent shops that let you sample different soaps and shampoos and bottle them on site, and also wine shops that offer bulk wines you sip and have them bottle or, sometimes, blend for you. (And yes, I know that olive oil is the basis of many soaps, including newly fashionable ones.) But unlike scents or even some run-of-the-mill wines—or, by comparison, vinegar—olive oil shouldn't be decanted unless it's absolutely necessary. And the very fact of rows of little stainless-steel jugs on the shelves, which imply constant filling and emptying, seemed particularly inauspicious.

I grudgingly admit that I was wrong in some of my suspicions. No oil I tasted was rancid—not even the French roasted-walnut oil, which I crowed to Mrs. Pilver and my spouse would most certainly be awful and have that rancid-nut taste that won't go away for hours. They did offer a decent sampling of the range of flavors and styles of extra-virgin oils, the only flavored varieties of which I approve are nut oils or pressed with lemon or orange. They came from many countries, and none was the best of its kind—all were workaday oils from countries that (with the possible exception of Tunisia, whose oils I don't know well but are seldom esteemed) produce much better oils. And garlic, "herbs de provence," and the evil truffle have no place in a store that caters to purists like me.

But, of course, to stay in business the store can't cater to people like me. The owners did emphasize what care they take to import containers directly from the source, and store them carefully in the shops; the larger of the two sizes of bottle, 375 milliliters, are UV-protected—the only kind oil should ever be bottled in, though the tint masks the color of the oil. (They're a much better buy, too: you have to pick three of the smaller kind, 200 milliliters, for $30, but get almost double the quantity in a single large bottle for $15). And every oil I tasted—I draw the line at non-citrus flavors—was okay, and the one I bought, with many green notes, a bit better. (It's Spanish early harvest, à la the throat-catching Tuscan style that caught on for its quantities of antioxidants; the olive is called hojiblanca, described here on the site of La Tienda, a site I like for Spanish products.)

And the vinegars were acceptable, though the flavors far more egregious: every sort of fruit, much more appropriate to soda than vinegar—black cherry, blackberry ginger, cinnamon pear—and the terrible-sounding chocolate. Of these, chocolate was, surprisingly, the least objectionable: the dark notes actually complemented the sweetness and dark, musty intensity of the (run-of-the-mill) vinegar.

I didn't buy any! And I still sternly disapprove, and of the whole tweeness of the phenomenon. Check out Ari Weinzweig, the country's leading expert for my money on olive oils and vinegars, and order one from Zingerman's. And if you're in Rockland, or with the swells and the first family in Bar Harbor, do give a well-intentioned mom-and-pop store a try.