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The Art of Olive Oil Explained

Warning: Reading this story may cause you to toss all of the olive oil and balsamic vinegar you currently own and replace it with better quality, better tasting products.

Before meeting Alina Lawrence, I thought I knew a thing or two about olive oil. But after a morning of tasting olive oils from around the world with her in her new Darien shop, Olivette, I will never look at a bottle of oil the same way.

“Olive oil is so much like wine,” says the Romanian-born Lawrence. “You have different categories — mild, medium and robust. And when you are tasting, you must first start with the mild and work you way up to the robust. Otherwise, you confuse your palate.”

She quickly schooled me in the proper technique for tasting olive oil. “Like wine, you need to aerate the oil inside your mouth. It’s a little noisy,” she laughs. “But you’ll taste the difference.” The noise comes from sucking air into your mouth after you’ve sipped the oil, causing it to bubble throughout your mouth and into the top of your throat. The effect is immediate and illuminating. “You can feel it,” she says. And she’s right. After a quick aeration, the flavors come alive in new and exciting ways.

Olivette boasts more than 45 different oils and vinegars. Each oil is extra virgin and clearly labeled, stating where the olives were grown, when they were pressed, the antioxidant levels in each oil, and any additional information, such as any awards the oil has won. Lawrence provides several different-sized bottles, which she will fill for you while you shop. She even offers a discount when you bring back your bottle for a refill.

The first oil we sampled is an Australian Hojiblanca. “It won the Best of Show, Best of Class and received a gold medal at the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition,” says Lawrence. After a small, aerated sip, it is easy to taste why. The oil is mild but extremely flavorful and boasts a decidedly green character. “I always tell my customers to go home and just smell your old olive oil. You don’t even have to taste it. Just smell it; that’s enough to change your mind.”

I sampled nearly a dozen oils and almost as many vinegars during my morning at Olivette . But despite my research, I cannot cite a single oil or vinegar as a favorite. Each taste is so distinctive that the possibilities are endless.

Standouts, however, I am happy to name. The Herbs de Provence infused oil is like taking your mouth to the South of France without leaving your kitchen. But mixing it into vinaigrette with the lavender-infused balsamic is utterly sublime.

Another oil, infused with the flavor of Tunisian harissa, is the perfect accent to a homemade pizza or pasta arrabiata. Oils infused with the essence of lemon, lime and blood orange invoke the warmth of summer.

Suffice it to say, Olivette’s oils aren’t your mother’s olive oils, even if your mother is a celebrated Mediterranean chef. With Olivette, Lawrence is bringing something totally new to the table.

In addition to her superior oils and vinegars, Lawrence offers other treats for your table you’re not likely to find elsewhere. On her shelves, you’ll find imported pestos and tampanades, local honeycombs and gourmet spice rubs. “I try every single thing in this store. So if it’s here, it’s because I think it’s good.”

Get ready to toss your old oils and vinegars and pay Lawrence a visit.

Olivette is located at 1084 Post Road in Darien. Store hours are Mondays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.

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