535 Fifth Avenue South, Naples, FL
2368 Immokalee Road, Naples, FL
If you go
What: Olive oil and balsamic vinegar tastings
Where: Naples Olive Oil Company at the Greentree Center, 2368 Immokalee Road; Florida Olive Oil Company in Old Naples, 535 Fifth Avenue South.
When: Daily during hours of operation
NAPLES — If you’ve only been using extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dazzle up a boring bed of tossed greens or three-day old baguette, Marie Heiland has a suggestion.
Next time, try pouring it on pancakes.
If such an act sounds like epicurean insanity, that’s perhaps because you haven’t yet sampled some of the tasty treats at Heiland’s shop, the Naples Olive Oil Company. This condition is easily altered: The Naples Olive Oil Company offers daily tastings.
So too does the Florida Olive Oil Company, located on Fifth Avenue South. The shop hosts a weekly cooking class on Thursday evenings.
Like wine tastings, olive oil and balsamic vinegar tastings are growing in popularity, believes Steve Martin, a sales associate at the Florida Olive Oil Company. The Florida Olive Oil Company has two Florida locations, Naples and Sarasota, and is in the process of opening a third shop on Sanibel Island.
“I think more people now, they’re health-conscious,” Martin said. “And, of course, you have a big variety of flavors that are available.”
Miracle in a bottle
Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat, which is believed to lower a person’s risk of heart disease by reducing total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. Just as monounsaturated fat is considered a “good” fat, LDL cholesterols are what are commonly referred to as “bad” cholesterols. The Food and Drug Administration notes that consuming two tablespoons, or 23 grams of olive oil, daily may reduce heart disease risks.
Other health experts also credit olive oil with helping to control blood sugar, to lowering the likelihood of certain kinds of cancer and even to alleviating ear infections and speeding the time it takes to heal a bad sunburn.
“It’s a fruit, and it’s an amazing fruit,” Heiland said.
Wine tastings and olive oil tastings share more than a superficial similarity, Heiland explains. From a production perspective, wine and olive oil are clearly cousins.
“It’s very similar to wine, the growing of the olive, the pressing of the olive,” she said.
And as with wine, some olive oils and balsamic vinegars are substantially more delicious and healthful than others.
Heiland wishes to stress that an excellent olive oil isn’t about the country of origin; it’s about the olive, and the way it’s harvested and produced. She buys her olive oil from small batch growers all over the world, seeking the freshest, most high-quality oil she can, she said. Most of the olives are still hand-harvested.
“Those are their babies,” she said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m in the olive business.’”
The fresher, the better
Olive oil is considered to be high grade if it has a polyphenol antioxidant count of 220 or higher, Heiland said; many of the Naples Olive Oil’s oils boast a polyphenol count of 380 or more.
Like other produce, olives begin to lose their nutrients the moment they are picked, which makes speed of the essence in production. Also, once it’s pressed, olive oil begins to oxidize and deteriorates immediately. While most consumers know to look for extra virgin olive oil — or the olive’s first press — they should also consider the time it took for the processing, Heiland said. If an olive is picked but left to sit for several days before it is pressed, it loses a hefty chunk of its nutrients.
“The whole secret to oil is that it must be fresh,” she said.
Olive oil has a shelf life of 18 to 26 months, Heiland said. It should never, ever be refrigerated, since that can lead to condensation and water is the enemy of oil. Also, if you are cooking with olive oil, it is best to avoid high heat: Once the oil begins to smoke, it is ruined and should not be eaten, Heiland said.
“It really is a fascinating world,” Heiland said of olive oil. “And there’s so much to know.”
Vinegar gets glamour
In contrast to olive oil, the secret to a delicious balsamic is aging, since that allows the vinegar to sweeten. The Naples Olive Oil Company offers 20 flavors of balsamic vinegar, including a traditional 18-year-aged selection; the shop’s olive oil selection numbers 20, including 12 infused oils. The Florida Olive Oil has 11 infused oils and 20 balsamic vinegars, all of which are aged 18 years as well.
A balsamic vinegar’s acidity also influences its palatability. A bottle of balsamic bought at a traditional supermarket often has 6 percent acidity, while most of Heiland’s vinegars have an acidity of .03 percent or less.
Again, taking a small sip of these balsamic vinegars quickly summons a comparison to wine. The vinegars are so rich and full-bodies, many resemble a good cabernet.
“It tastes like a wine,” said Martin. “And it’s just all of the natural sugars.”
At each store, tasting stations allow shoppers to sample small sips of the various oils and vinegars. But it’s when the olive oil and balsamic vinegars are properly paired that the foodie fireworks begin to explode.
One of Heiland’s favorites is an emulsion of blood orange olive oil and cinnamon pear balsamic. That’s what she splashes over her pancakes in lieu of syrup.
“It takes you to another level of flavor and dimension,” she said.