Most people’s knowledge of olive oil is limited to looking for the “extra virgin” label on a bottle at the grocery store.
Two shops in Raleigh aim to change that, specializing entirely in olive oils and balsamic vinegars. The goal is for customers to treat oil and vinegar like fine wines, appreciating the countless varieties available and avoiding the mass-produced bottles.
The Olive Cart opened this month in North Raleigh’s Lafayette Village off Falls of Neuse Road. It’s Raleigh’s second such store, joining Midtown Olive Press, which has been open for two years in The Lassiter at North Hills.
“It’s a way of enhancing your food without being a culinary smarty-pants,” said Whitney Brown, owner of The Olive Cart.
Brown said she gets a confused look from many of the casual shoppers walking into The Olive Cart. For the uninitiated, she’ll pour olive oil and balsamic vinegar into a tiny sample cup, then encourage them to dip a piece of bread and soak up the oils. “It’s a real sensory thing,” she says.
Olive oils are used plenty in cooking, but Brown said balsamics are mistakenly relegated to salad dressing. “A lot of people are completely unfamiliar with balsamics and how to use them,” she said. “All of the food groups can be enhanced by balsamics.”
Some will spend up to an hour in the shop, deciding among dozens of varieties including cranberry balsamic, mushroom sage oil, citrus habanero oil and chocolate raspberry balsamic. All are stored in airtight steel tanks called fustis, and each purchase is bottled on the spot. Prices for a bottle start around $13.
With so many choices, both The Olive Cart and Midtown Olive Press offer cooking advice. Midtown has a pairing chart and offers recipes on cards and on their website.
“There’s different hints, notes and finishes just like wines, and it depends on the types of olives that are used,” said Midtown owner Bethany Perkins, who recently added a second location in Greensboro.
Both stores also post details about where each oil is from; all are single-origin, unlike mass-produced bottles. “We know exactly when they’ve been crushed, where they were grown,” Perkins said.
Perkins says being educated about your olive oil is key to successful cooking.
“A lot of these big companies will heat the oil to get more oils out of them, or they are cutting the olive oil with cheaper nut,” she said. “There’s a small percentage of olive oil in the world that’s actually extra virgin.”