Olive oil has been made for thousands of years. Homer mentions it in his writing, and it’s in the Bible. Today, we use and love it for its taste and its health benefits, including high levels of heart-healthy oleic acid and antioxidant-rich polyphenols. Similarly, its tart yet sweet friend, balsamic vinegar, has been produced in northern Italy since the Middle Ages. The two go together like, not surprisingly, oil and vinegar.
What most home cooks don’t know is that the olive oil and balsamic you buy in the store usually isn’t the real deal. In reality, what’s called “extra-virgin olive oil” often is blended with other oils, is from multiple countries and is more than a year old upon hitting shelves. “Extra-virgin” denotes the first pressing of olives, meaning it’s the virgin press — and the oil you get in stores is very often far from that or well past its shelf life.
The balsamic vinegar in stores often is red wine vinegar with flavoring and coloring added. Though it’s possible to buy authentic products in many places, figuring out what is and isn’t the good stuff can be a challenge because of the lack of coherence in international labeling regulation standards.
That’s one of the big reasons Pat and Nancy O’Brien changed careers after more than 20 years to open Fiore Artisan Olive Oils and Vinegars, a retail store with locations in Bar Harbor and Rockland. That and the fact that the couple were looking for any chance they could get to move from Connecticut and live permanently in Maine. Fiore, which has been open in Bar Harbor since July 2009 and in Rockland since May 2010, sells imported olive oil and authentic aged Italian balsamic vinegar — and gives customers the chance to taste them all before buying.
“You really don’t know what you’re missing until you try the real thing,” Pat O’Brien said. “It’s nothing like what you’re accustomed to. The flavor is so much bigger and more complex.”
At both Fiore locations, a bright, clean retail space displays more than 30 shiny silver dispensers, all of which contain either vinegar or oil. For balsamic vinegar, there are 12-year or 18-year varieties, the former with a sharper, cleaner flavor and the latter with a darker, sweeter flavor. True balsamic is made in northern Italy from Trebbiano grapes and is aged a minimum of 12 years in barrels of varying size made from wood such as juniper, chestnut, acacia, cherry and others.
“It’s not unlike whiskey or wine in terms of the aging process and the flavor it produces,” said Nancy O’Brien. “It’s much thicker and more flavorful than the balsamic you might be used to.”
In addition to traditional balsamic, there’s an array of flavored varieties, including vinegars infused with black cherry, fig, pomegranate, strawberry, blueberry and cinnamon pear. For 18-year varieties, there are vanilla and dark chocolate flavors. They also have white balsamic vinegar, created when the insides of the barrels are not charred, infused with grapefruit, summer peach and honey ginger.
On the opposing wall are the olive oils. Seven unflavored varieties are lined up, ranging from mild to robust flavors and each labeled with the olive variety. On the mild side, Fiore currently stocks a Picholine oil made from French olives that produce a distinctly floral taste, not unlike tomatoes picked fresh from the garden. On the robust side is the Greek Koroneiki variety, which packs a peppery kick and pleasingly bitter aftertaste.
“The oil you buy in the grocery store was more often than not produced over a year prior to actually landing on the shelf, so all that flavor and the health benefits have largely degraded at that point,” Pat O’Brien said. “There’s really only about a 12- to 15-month window after the oil has been pressed that the flavor remains, and the oleic acid and all that good stuff is there. There’s a chemical in the olive pit that slowly degrades it. The oils we stock were produced back in July and August, and we’ll only run them through March, so you’re getting the full benefit.”
There also are an array of flavored varieties, from deceptively spicy chipotle oil to Tuscan herb, Meyer lemon and garlic. There also are walnut oil, roasted sesame oil, porcini oil and decadent white truffle oil. The current oils in stock are from the Southern Hemisphere, including Chile and Australia. By the spring, the Northern Hemisphere oils will arrive from Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Tunisia and other Mediterranean countries.
The flavor combinations of oil and vinegar are seemingly neverending. Try the blood orange oil with the dark chocolate vinegar or the strawberry vinegar with the herbs de Provence oil. For a salad dressing, try honey ginger vinegar with Persian lime oil — or better yet, fry some eggs in chipotle oil.
“We had a customer say he went through an entire bottle of chipotle oil, putting it on popcorn,” Pat O’Brien said. “Then he actually popped the corn in the oil, and came back and said ‘That’s it. I’m addicted.’”
The O’Briens, always interested in food and wine, were first turned on to the joys of oil and vinegar by a friend who opened a tasting store in Wisconsin. After trying countless products and learning about the industry, the O’Briens decided they wanted to open a similar store on Mount Desert Island, where they owned a home in Bass Harbor. Months went by before the location on Rodick Place in Bar Harbor became available. The couple signed the lease in May 2009 and had renovated and opened by July.
“It was a whirlwind, but we had it ready in five weeks,” Nancy O’Brien said. “At the end of the year, our banker asked us, ‘What’s next?’ and we said, ‘Well, we’d like to open another location.’ He found us locations from Boothbay to Belfast. We drove all over the state until we finally settled on Rockland.”
Fiore in Rockland opened in May on the lower half of Main Street. Through both locations, the O’Briens have established ties with local restaurants, supplying oil and vinegar to places such as Red Sky Restaurant in Southwest Harbor; Mache Bistro in Bar Harbor; Lily Bistro, Suzuki Sushi and the Pearl, all in Rockland; and Montes International Catering in Bangor. Last week, Fiore was named the 2010 Rising Star by the Bar Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce.
“I got asked to be a judge at the lobster cooking competition at the Lobster Festival in Rockland last summer,” Pat O’Brien said. “I think that was when we really felt like we were a part of the community. Everyone has been really welcoming. And once they come in and try what we have, they can never go back to the old stuff.”
Fiore is located at 8 Rodick Place in Bar Harbor and at 503 Main St. in Rockland. Oils and vinegars range in price from $10 to $30; gift packs are available. The store is open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sundays. Products also can be ordered online at www.fioreoliveoils.com.