I've been so tickled to see the rise of local olive oils over the past several years, but I have to admit I'm still enamored by the variety of quality oils produced in other parts of California and around the world. So, I was interested to learn about a relatively new North County retail business that focuses on selling premium olive oils and aged balsamic vinegars.
Baker & Olive opened in Encinitas almost two years ago and is about to launch its second shop in Del Mar Highlands in just over a week. Owned by Marion and Paul Johnson, Baker & Olive is all about specialty foods--whether it's their vast array of oils and vinegars or high-end salts, honeys, preserves, marinades, and teas. They bring in locally baked breads, cheese, and olives as well.
But let's focus on the oils and vinegars because this is really why you'll want to go.
I spent some time with manager Sean Fisher, a chef of 30 years who clearly has a passion for these condiments. He works with a purveyor who knows the producers, their families, the groves, and the production methods. In other words, someone he trusts--which is hugely important when it comes to olive oils. It's all too easy to buy oils that are mislabeled, old, mishandled, and just plain lousy. Supermarkets and even some specialty shops fail miserably when it comes to buying and handling olive oil (think five-year-old clear bottles under warm florescent lights) and customers wind up spending a lot of money on worthless oils.
So, you want to know that your purveyor knows his/her stuff. Fisher reminded me that as with wines, cheese, and coffee, terroir is important. Like grapes, the same olive varieties can grow halfway around the world from each other or just miles apart and will have a different flavor, thanks to the soil and the rest of the environment. In fact, environmental conditions can impact the harvest, the quality and quantity of the olives, and the oil from year to year so what you fall in love with this year may not be available the next or may be hugely bountiful and even more delicious.
Fisher emphasizes that Baker & Olive focuses on single varietals from a single estate and single origin and they pay close attention to the harvest date. After all, unlike most wines, olive oil doesn't mature and improve with age. You don't want to hoard it, but instead use it no later than within a year of harvest.
To that end, twice a year Baker & Olive switches the origin of their oils between northern and southern hemisphere producers to reflect harvest and production. That way, you get the freshest oils available.
So, you'll find oils produced in Europe and North America sold in the late fall to spring and oils from Chile, Argentina, and other South American countries in the summer and going into fall when those olives are harvested and pressed below the equator.
Additionally, Fisher notes, all of the oils the store carries are .3 percent acidity and below, meaning that they are more durable under heat and healthier.
There is a full row of natural oils with a range of intensity--butter soft like the creamy California Arbosana I bought to a grassy, slightly bitter Favolosa from Italy. The store also carries a large selection of infused oils, some you'd expect like basil or blood orange, but others that are unusual, such as Persian lime or wild mushroom and sage.
And, as you can see, they provide a good description of the oils and how to use them, as well as tasting cups (no bread; it interferes with the flavor). And, Fisher says, the staff will help customers identify the best oils and vinegars for the way they cook and entertain, even dissuading them from some purchases in favor of others that they'll be more likely to use and enjoy.
Then there are the balsamic vinegars. These are white balsamics from Modena, Italy--most aged 18 years while a couple, like the peach, are aged eight years to keep the flavors in harmony. Again, you'll find both very traditional aged balsamic...
... and you'll find flavors that will blow you away. Chocolate. Jalapeño. Thai mint-lemongrass. And, the one I bought, violet. Yes, violet--which I intend to use to glaze a roast chicken.
Here's a tip from Fisher for creating a balsamic glaze. Instead of reducing your balsamic over heat and possibly burning it, simply pour what you need into a flat ceramic or glass dish--the more real estate the better. Cover with cheesecloth and let it sit on the counter overnight. By morning, the evaporation process should leave a thick reduction you can use as a glaze. Easy.
I particularly liked that, given the range of these exotic flavors, Fisher has put together lists of potential combinations and applications that are up on a blackboard behind the counter and on the website. So, for instance, you can pair the Persian lime EVOO and Cranberry Pear Balsamic to dress a gulf shrimp, citrus, and avocado salad.
Along with retail customers, Fisher has been working with chefs around San Diego, including Paul McCabe of Delicias, Joe Magnanelli of Cucina Urbana, and Jeffrey Strauss of Pamplemousse Grill. So, you'll find these oils and vinegars incorporated into menu dishes around town.
Baker & Olive is located at 165 S. El Camino Real and later next week at 12925 El Camino Real in the Del Mar Highlands Town Center.