After months of waiting and unbearable anticipation, local foodies can finally indulge in the best thing to happen to the Montclair Food scene since the opening of Le Salbuen in May: Olive That! and More has opened its doors on Bellevue Ave!
The brain child of Husband and wife team Steve Lehrhoff and Jennifer O’Sullivan, Olive That! is an emporium of Mediterranean Olive Oils and Balsamic Vinegar, infused vinegars and oils, and exotic sea salt. It’s a place to rediscover, and get reacquainted with, the simplest of culinary pleasures: some good bread, some good olive oil, and great conversation.
The idea of an olive oil boutique is not that unique. The Filling Station in Manhattan is fairly well known among Montclair residents. There’s also The Saratoga Olive Oil Company in Burlington, Vermont, plus the boutiques in San Francisco and the DC metro area.
To learn more about the olive oil and balsamic vinegar industry, Steve immersed himself in the study, and took a class at the Robert Mondavi Institute at UC Davis where he became friends with others in the industry.
Steve traveled the world as Elton John’s tour manager, and no matter where he went, it seemed olive oil and bread was what brought people together.
On a recent afternoon I had the pleasure of peaking into the shop while things were still being sorted out, only to find myself the recipient of a warm invitation to enter. Quite some time later, I emerged having indulged in strawberries with traditional and infused balsamic vinegars, bread with olive oil, and a few pinches of truffled sea salt.
The walls of the store are lined with large containers of olive oil and balsamic vinegar from which individual bottles and samples are poured. The sheer number of varietals is proof that this place is special.
Balsamic vinegar seems to be the most misunderstood item in the store. Sure, “Modena” on the label is important, but the source is not nearly as important as the process used to make it.
The most distinguishable characteristic of Balsamic Vinegar is aging; proper aging, in wooden casks, in the attic, for years. When the aging process of balsamic vinegar begins, the vinegar is stored in large oak barrels (the size of display pieces at Crate And Barrel). Over time, some of the water in the vinegar will evaporate leaving the product slightly thicker. From there it is transferred to a smaller cask. The resinous qualities of the casks impart their own flavors to the vinegar throughout the aging process.
Supermarket vinegars are often “aged” in stainless steel and often for only a few weeks. The complexity of sweetness and sharpness, spiciness and mellifluousness can only be achieved in wooden casks over time.
The best balsamic vinegars come from small farms in Modena, where each farmer often has his own style of barreling some using oak, others cherry, some juniper, and still others a combination of all of these. The farming regions in Italy are not like Nebraska where there is more space than anyone knows what to do with. Space is at a premium, and if something has to sit for 15 or more years it should be in a place where it will not become an obstacle to other activity. Practical farmers stored the barrels of vinegar in their attics, where, just like American attics, the spaces get really hot in the summer and really cold in the winter. In summer the balsamic takes on more of the spicy and deep wood flavor notes, in winter the cold weather allows the flavors to mellow and sweeten. First time customers to Olive That! and More have to (HAVE TO!) taste the traditional balsamic while keeping this history in mind. All those Italian summers and winters, will come to mind while the complex flavors dance on the tongue.
Olive Oil is similarly complex. Thanks to Rachel Ray, we’ve all come to know EVOO. But, few of us know exactly what that means. Olive oil, in all of its forms, is heart healthy, especially when compared to other fats in the diet. Flavor profiles change significantly when olive oil is processed. Extra virgin olive oil, or even first press olive oil is just that: olive oil that has been pressed from olives. It’s green, and yellow, and if you get the unfiltered variety it has those little floating bits of fruit that are packed with flavor. Once pressed, the olives still hold a lot of oil in their fruit, so heat is applied to release more of the oil. Heat diminishes flavor making this sort of oil a poor choice for dipping, but a great choice for cooking since all of the healthy properties are still there. The remaining fruit is then chemically treated to extract even more oil given us the generically labeled “olive oil” and grocery items that “contain real olive oil.” Olive That! And more only deals with best quality oils.
The flavor profiles of olive oils vary by regions and country of origin. My favorite was, big surprise here, Tunisian Olive Oil. Like Moroccan olive oils, this North African oil has a very smooth flavor and texture profile, with grassy notes that connote spring and new growth. All of the olivewood spoons and serving pieces in the store also come from Tunisia. Greenpeace Africa just released a report that stated solar power plants in North Africa (Tunisia) could conceivably power the entire EU. I have a strong suspicion that we'll all be hearing a great deal more about this Mediterranean nation but for now let’s just enjoy the olive oil.
Olive That! has Italian olive oils too! They offers an interesting Umbrian blend of Frantoio and Leccino. Frantoio is the gold standard of Umbrian olive oils, it has a really deep taste that is almost autumnal, when blended with the milder Leccino the result if heavenly. While viscosity is not commonly used with regard to olive oil descriptions, this one had it, it was thick, making it ideal for those situations where dipping oil will be served in a cocktail party situation (less drips on the carpet!) Not to be missed is the Laconiko Lemon olive oil from Greece.
Infused olive oils and vinegars have a place in the store as well. Some of the flavors sound unusual until you get that first taste, then everything makes sense. The espresso balsamic is great on its own, dipped with bread, or even on strawberries, but being someone who includes ground espresso beans in barbecue rubs I see the potential to use the espresso balsamic as a beef marinade.
Remember that blueberry balsamic sauce recipe posted on Hot From The Kettle a few weeks ago? Toss it! The blueberry balsamic at Olive That has the same sweet-tart blueberry notes as the sauce I created and all you have to do is uncork the bottle! Drizzle some over Madeleines to turn afternoon tea on its head. (And yes, it pairs really well with Earl Grey, so there, I just gave you a great idea for your Downton Abbey viewing party.)
The infused olive oils are an interesting lot. Whether fruity in the morning on waffles, or spicy and herby with dinner, we’re all accustomed to compound butters, but what if that concept was taken to a different place with heart healthy olive oil? The big winner here is Citrus Habanero, with the brightness of citrus and a sparkle of heat I cannot wait to drizzle some over edamame. Its also great over fresh (not fried) spring rolls instead of that sweet chili sauce that is mainly sugar. There is a wide range of infused oils, and they change with the seasons.
While indulging in the flavors and fragrances of the store be sure to check out the Applewood Smoked Salt. Work a little of that salt with some Meyer lemon olive oil under the skin of a chicken before roasting for a Sunday dinner that will make you a culinary hero. The truffle salt is also top drawer. If I admit that I use it on leftover pizza I’ll probably lose my food writing credentials so let’s just pretend I didn’t write that.
Flavors, fragrances and sources are great surprises, but the best surprise is the price. Most olive oils and vinegars are priced at $16.95 for 375ml. A few of the specialty oils and truffle varieties are a bit more. In the world of varietals that is a bargain! Big bonus: customers get to taste everything before they buy it.
For such a small space there is so much to discover. So that’s all you’re getting from me today, you just have to experience Olive That! to really get it. The staff is very customer focused, probably because they are not selling olive oil, they are sharing their passion, and that makes all the difference. While visiting they made a coffee run “let’s got to Jackie’s since it’s a locally owned small business.” How can you not love people like that!
Olive That! And More is at 246 Bellevue Ave, next to Crookhorns and across from Chase Bank.