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The trio stared with rapt attention as the clerk deftly swirled the amber liquid in its snifter. The aroma was strong enough to reach their nostrils even though they were standing nearly two feet away. They smelled hints of strawberry, black cherry, and the crisp tang of something… unfathomable.
The clerk handed the shifter to the woman in the middle. She smiled and slowly brought it to her nose and inhaled deeply. Relaxed contentment spread across her face. It was if she could taste the drink through the air. Nonetheless, a quick glint of apprehension flashed in her eye before she poured the concoction down her throat.
“Oh, my God! That’s delicious.”
The woman is one of a dozen people participating in a unique networking function held by Raymond James investment advisers for potential clients. Her exclamation is not the only one heard in the room, as other people try different mixes and flavors. Given the careful swirling of the liquid and the store clerks making sure the attendees take a good whiff of the drink before tasting, it might be assumed that they were at a wine bar, sipping different vintages of wine. That would be incorrect.
They are taste-testing olive oil.
The event is at “The Ancient Olive,” a cozy store just off Park Avenue in Winter Park, Florida. Owned by proprietors Bryan Behling and Jeffrey Schrader, the Olive takes the concept of a tasting bar—usually reserved for fine wines—in a new direction. It replaces rare vintages with dozens of aromatic and flavorful virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars. These are not, however, run of the mill olive oil and white vinegars that would be found in the aisles of the local grocery store.
“Most virgin olive oil in grocery stores is rancid olive oil mixed with two percent virgin olive oil. The quality is quite low,” says Behling. Indeed, in the United States, the USDA states that any company can call their product virgin olive oil when it only has two percent virgin olive oil in it. Extra virgin only needs eight percent. Making matters worse, the USDA standards are not mandatory, but mere suggestions. Customers are at the mercy of what they read on the label. This is not so at The Ancient Olive.
“We are working with a company that is both a distributor and importer. They have their own olive groves in Tunisia. They are there, physically, at the beginning of the press. The olives never touch the ground and are pressed within three hours of harvest. Samples are even taken to get an examination of their chemical compounds. It’s an ultrahigh standard they follow,” says Schrader, pride evident in his voice.
If the whole concept seems strange or foreign to you, it probably means you are American. There is only one of three or four stores like The Ancient Olive in the United States. In countries like Spain, Tunisia, Chile, and Australia, olive oil has a sub-culture all its own.
“Just like wines, you can import different oils from regions according to when their harvest times are. Right now, all our products are from the Northern Hemisphere. We have Spanish and Portuguese olive oils that are only 15 days old,” says Schrader.
The attention to quality and detail has paid off. Local restaurants, like Dexters in nearby Hannibal Square, use their balsamic vinegars in cocktail drinks. The uses for olive oils and balsamic vinegars go way beyond salads and bread dipping. “We have a cocktail with our peach balsamic, fresh strawberries, peaches muddled with some vodka and club soda. It’s fantastic.”
Customers in Winter Park are loyal, and a following is building. This is not bad for two guys with corporate—not culinary—backgrounds.
Schrader worked in human resources for Chase Bank, and Behling worked in information systems at Fidelity Systems. When the market began to crumble, both witnessed friends and co-workers lose their jobs. Rather then just sit back and hope for the best, they took control of their future and used some of their retirement funds to open their first store called “The Spice & Tea Exchange.” The exchange sells fresh mixes of cooking spices and herbal teas. Dispensing fresh olive oils is something both men thought would mix well with the concept of the exchange.
“We always wanted to dispense, but not at this level and size,” says Schrader. “We would go to the farmers market in New York, and there was this one spice vendor, you would always know you were getting close to them, because you could smell the wonderful aromas. When the space we have came available, we just decided to go bigger on the idea.”
Customers like Meritxelly are ecstatic that Schrader and Behling went big. “I’ve just moved here to Florida from Spain, less than a week ago. Walking into here (Ancient Olive) feels just like home.” That is high praise from someone who grew up in a culture where freshly pressed olive oils were a part of their everyday eating life, like ketchup is in the United States. Stateside customers are appreciative, but overwhelmed.
“The first reaction we get from new customers is ‘Wow!’” says Behling. “The second is ‘Where do we start?’”
To help customers along, all the balsamic vinegars are located together. The Olive has four tables with a wide variety of flavored virgin olive oils, including Agrumato olive oils that have been pressed together with natural fruit. It is a careful, slow process because the fruit must be ripe at the same time the olives are ready to be harvested and pressed, but makes the flavors taste like its part of the oil’s DNA. Examples of the different flavors are: strawberry, black cherry, jalapeño, lemon, and orange.
All of the olive oils are bottled on the premises, once a customer has made a selection. Prices vary from $12 for a small bottle to $39 for a bottle the size of a wine bottle. The Olive offers a dollar off refills into the same bottle and has sample packs that can be bought as well. In the future, customers will be able to order online for shipping across the country.
Thus far, Schrader and Behling are happy with the response. “We work very hard at the Tea Exchange and get great foot traffic since we are right on Park Avenue. But for whatever reason, the Olive has garnered a following much faster. But we are not complaining.”
For more information on the Ancient Olive, go to www.theancientolive.com
Cocktails with balsamic vinegars:
1. Add a few drops of Lavender dark balsamic vinegar to a rocks glass containing a muddled fresh basil leaf, crushed ice, vodka and soda.
2. Add Peach white balsamic vinegar to a tall drink glass containing muddled peaches and raspberries, vodka, soda and crushed ice.
Image Courtesy of Shalyce Jackson