“There are no olive trees in Gloucester,” my husband said.
I had told him a friend and I were checking out the Newburyport Olive Oil Co., which opened in November as the “sister” store to the Cape Ann Olive Oil Co. in Gloucester, which opened January 2012.
He’s right about the trees. But you could argue that lifelong Gloucester residents Lauren and Eric Negron have imported something better: extra virgin olive oils from around the world.
The Negrons got the idea during a 2011 vacation in Florida. Spotting an olive oil store, the couple — neither one an expert — went in, did a taste testing, and got hooked.
Inspired, they envisioned bringing the business to Gloucester. Then life went on fast-forward.
“We got married Nov. 11, 2011,” Lauren Negron said, “and one week later, I was flying out to Oakland, Calif., for an intensive, one-day training” by their olive oil distributor, Veronica Foods.
Crush dates, countries of origin, and chemistry — oleic acid, polyphenols, and peroxides — were included in the crash course, as well as numerous taste testings and instructions on how to set up a store.
“The business exploded,” said Jaime Strazzero, manager of the Newburyport store. “People love the versatility of it — the over 37 different oils, and over 27 balsamic vinegars.”
The oils come from Spain, Australia, California, Greece, Italy, Sicily, Tunisia, and Chile; the balsamic vinegars are from Modena, Italy.
“I never knew there were so many oils” is one of the most common customer reactions, Lauren Negron said.
She oversees the businesses and Eric, a full-time carpenter and coppersmith, built “everything you see,” Strazzero said. “The first thing people say when they walk in is, ‘Wow.’ ”
Wow is right. Rows of shining Italian stainless steel “fustis,’’ which block air and light to prevent the oil from turning, are positioned on a wooden shelf above a copper-covered counter. The walls, painted a light olive green, display the store’s logo in purple, matching the custom-etched bottles.
A stack of small tasting cups and a sample bottle of each oil or vinegar are under each spout. Cubby shelves beneath the counter are stocked with bottles of 220 or 375 milliliters. Because of the rent, prices differ between the two stores: $11 for a small bottle and $20 for a large at Gloucester, and $12 and $22, respectively, in Newburyport. Online orders are handled by the Cape Ann store.
Like a wine shop, the oils are organized by country. White labels on each fusti list details about its contents — year crushed, country, chemicals — as well as tips for use.
I expected suggestions for using olive oil on various foods. But balsamic vinegars on fruit, ice cream, and in drinks? Or that making my own, sophisticated vinaigrette could be as easy as mixing blood orange extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO, with cranberry-pear white balsamic vinegar?
A whole new world seemed to open.
California-based olive oils, crushed with such ingredients as lemons, limes, or chipotle peppers, create flavored versions that we loved even more than the standard ones.
Tasting is fun, simple and informal — pour a tiny amount of oil or vinegar in a cup, dip a finger into it, and taste. What’s noticeable is the smooth, clean taste and lighter texture of the oil or vinegar.
Recipe tips, offered in-store and via e-mail, are not all about salad dressings and marinades.
Laura Negron’s sister-in-law bakes a coconut cake using coconut-infused oil, and adds raspberry balsamic vinegar to the frosting. Strazzero creates a Tex Mex-style salad with lime oil and mango balsamic on fresh mangos and greens. Even a glass of Champagne can be enhanced with black cherry, dark chocolate, or aged peach white balsamic.
While I debated my purchase, Strazzero piped in, “Get the lime-infused oil, and pair it with the raspberry balsamic. It’s like a lime rickey.”
I did, substituting it that night for the typical creamy dressing on our chicken Caesar salad. It tasted like summer in my mouth. What fun! Even better, I almost felt lighter, even energized, into the next day.
The shops also carry a small selection of gift items, such as olive oil soaps from Ipswich Bay Soap Co., raw honey from Tomten Bee Works in Ipswich, hand creams and body lotions, chocolates, spices, and an array of Stonewall Kitchen products.
While we were checking out, a woman wearing sweats ran in to grab a wine-sized bottle of the raspberry balsamic vinegar that Strazzero wrapped in pretty, dark purple tissue paper and placed in a bag.
“Once a customer uses bottles of olive oil as a gift, they never go back,” Strazzero said after she left. “The wine is gone the night of the party, but the oil lasts long afterward.”Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathyshielstully@ gmail.com.