“Let me entertain you with some tasting while we talk,” Luanne Savino O’Loughlin suggested, and she put two bottles on the counter. One of them was short and broad-shouldered and full of liquid that looked like Scotch. The other was the shape of a droplet, and it appeared to be full of pomegranate extract. She called them “balsamics,” short for balsamic vinegars, but explained that these were different from what you and I know as vinegars, because vinegars by definition are derived from wine. In the high end world of traditional balsamic vinegar, the best are simply grape must, and the “balsamics have to begin with the must of grapes grown in one of two regions: Modena or Reggio Emilia,” she explained.
For a second, I considered acting like I knew what she was talking about. Then I said, “What’s grape must?”
“It’s what’s left of the fruit after you press it for wine.”
That would explain why the expensive balsamic vinegar I got for Christmas works so well with raisins and kale.
O’Loughlin is the manager of Olio2go, an importer of fine Italian olive oils and balsamics — and GCF’s newest public group site, located near the Merrifield Garden Center in Fairfax. I had come to take a look at the place and to learn about their products, and all the way into the city I had been cleaning my palate with water in hopes that some of those extraordinary liquids might appear on the tasting table.
O’Loughlin explained that the liquids she was pouring were extraordinary to the degree that their production was protected by two Italian consortia, whose members are the only entities with the legal right to print the words “Traditional balsamic” on their labels. The website of one of those consortia says the term ‘balsamic’ is a new-comer to the culinary lexicon: “[it] was used for the first time in the records of the ducal inventories of the Este Palace in Modena in 1747; probably the name derived from the therapeutic uses to which the vinegar was put at the time.”
The other calls the product these consortia produce and protect “the condiment par excellence.”
Luanne opened the broad-shouldered bottle and poured a little of the Scotch into a taster cup. This was a white balsamic made by the Cattani family from the Modena consortium, she explained. It’s crafted from Trebbiano grapes, using a low pressure cooking method that preserves the golden color of the must. People love its texture with anything in the garden between April and June.
It made my chin drop and my cheeks pull in and my eyes open wide. Bitter, sweet, intensely aromatic, from the middle of your throat all the way up into your sinuses. Arugula and limeade, with a hint of gouda cheese. Not vinegar.
And not the sort of thing you’ll find at Harris Teeter.
O’Loughlin finds her wares in the vineyards and the olive groves of Modena and Reggio Emilia, and she brings them back to Olio2go in her suitcase. Not really, but putting it that way underscores one of the differences between real artisanal Italian oils and vinegars and their industrial namesakes: there isn’t very much of the good stuff.
For the past 15 years, O’Loughlin and owners Donna Morea and Jeff Chandler have been searching the Italian countryside for the best olive oils and balsamic vinegars, along with othert artisanal Italian foods, and importing them for sale to American chefs, both professionals and amateurs. Their shop in Fairfax is organized by region, beginning in the north with Lombardy and moving southward through Tuscany and Calabria all the way to Sicily. The shop enjoys exclusive American importing contracts with dozens of Italian families which produce some of the world’s finest oils and vinegars — in small quantities — so small that in some cases their output can be cut in half by factors beyond their control.
A September hailstorm in Tuscany, for example, caused so much crop damage that one grower was forced to choose between selling to Olio2go and selling to his Japanese importer — he didn’t have enough oil for both.
The second balsamic O’Loughlin poured was the inverse of that white Cattani: old instead of young, dark instead of light, as thick as molasses and sweet enough to pour on strawberries, or ice cream. Due Vittorie Aceto Balsamico Oro is produced from a mixture of grapes grown in Modena and grapes grown in Emilia Romagna. The barrels it ages in make it taste like black cherries. A quarter of a liter sells for $36.95.
Olio2go’s website offers a wealth of information about the history of olive oil (it’s been common in the Mediterranean region since 3000 BCE), the health benefits of olive oil (it contains monounsaturated fat, which increases HDL cholesterol, and a recently discovered super anti-oxidant called hydroxytyrosol), and different grades of olive oil (Extra Virgin means acidity of no more than 0.8%). It also provides information about travel in Italy — where to stay and where to eat — along with recipes for dishes you might encounter in Italy, and links to entities like the National Italian American Foundation and the Olive Oil Times.
“There’s no question that the producer — whose family or estate name is on the label — grew, picked, pressed, bottled, capped, labelled, and shipped this authentic, great olive oil to us,” Morea and Chandler assert in their catalog. In an era when knowing your farmer gets harder every day, that assurance is worth paying for.