Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Vom Fass: Oils and Vinegars and Spirits--Oh My

I'd like to proffer a bit of advice during these mad shopping days: if you wander by an unfamiliar shop that looks intriguing--go in! Don't be intimidated because it's new to you. Just step on through the doorway and prepare to be enchanted. I say this because for months I somehow ignored this credo of mine at the HUB (known to longtime residents as the Hillcrest Uptown Center but now called Hillcrest Uptown Block). Yes, I, who has long written about ethnic markets to demystify them so shoppers across the board would feel comfortable out of their comfort zone and excited by the possibilities, kept passing by the new Vom Fass after getting my hair cut, momentarily marvel at the weird name, glance inside, but then continue on to Trader Joe's.

Photo courtesy of Vom Fass Hillcrest
Big mistake, but I finally rectified it last week. Vom Fass (German for "from the cask") is a global franchise some 20 years old of tasting rooms for oils, vinegars, spirits, and liqueurs. They source from small artisanal producers, mostly in Europe, although they also have a manufacturer in Madison, Wisconsin. About six months ago, San Diegans Colleen and Jay Cavalieri opened up a tasting room in the HUB, next to Ralph's. They had discovered Vom Fass earlier when they had taken their son to visit colleges in Claremont, north of San Diego, and at someone's suggestion, stopped into the one there. Clearly, they loved it. Loved it so much, in fact, that they decided to launch a store here, the fourth in California (the other two are in Ventura and San Francisco) and the 25th in the country.

Photo courtesy of Vom Fass Hillcrest

Photo courtesy of Vom Fass Hillcrest
Vom Fass Hillcrest is divided in half. On the right are the spirits, liqueurs, and wines. While pretty much everything else in the shop is sent to them via Vom Fass, the Cavalieris may select the wines, and often their choices are local. The spirits include a variety of Scotch whiskies--from Blair Athol and Cragabus to Irish and American whiskey, along with other spirits like rum, gin, and vodka. There's a broad range of liqueurs. I enjoyed sips of their nut chocolate and lemoncello liqueurs, but you can also find flavors like apricot liqueur with grappa, framboise, sour cherry with vodka, and Irish whiskey liqueur.

To the left is where I spent most of my time. I'm a sucker for great oils and vinegars and the ones Vom Fass has are both lovely and decadent. There are numerous olive oils from different regions in Europe, infused oils, nut and seed oils, and wellness oils. They have wine vinegars, fruit balsamic vinegars, what they call Balsamic Stars (more viscous thanks to the concentrated juices and vinegars), and Aceto Balsamicos.

I sampled any number of them, alone and in combination--in fact, Vom Fass is great about suggesting pairings and recipes. I started with the garlic extra virgin olive oil. It was rich and smooth with a punch of garlic flavor. Paired with the Old Spanish Wine Vinegar, it would be perfect for a salad or on roasted vegetables. The Old Spanish Wine Vinegar, aged about 12 years, may have been my favorite sampling. I love a great aged Sherry vinegar, but this topped it. It's bold and acidic going down; yes, you could just sip it and be happy. Use it for a vinaigrette or marinade--or as a finisher with a dish that would benefit from a strong flavor, like game meat or sautéed greens. Or, hey, vanilla ice cream.

This time of year I love a good pumpkin seed oil. Vom Fass has a marvelous one. I enjoyed its pure nutty flavor. I bought a bottle and drizzled it on a bowl of pumpkin soup. Later I may use it to make croutons. But it would also be wonderful drizzled on a baked potato or grains, or as Vom Fass suggests, mixed with honey and drizzled over pancakes.

I was floored by the pistachio oil. Just the aroma alone made me swoon. This rich oil that is totally pistachio in flavor is perfect over fish or a composed salad. Yes, I bought a small bottle of that, too.

And I bought the Calamansi Balsamic Vinegar. Calamansis, a small Filipino citrus reminiscent of a lime, are a favorite of mine and they're grown locally. So I had to try the vinegar version. It turns out this vinegar is a best seller at the Hillcrest Vom Fass and for good reason. It's got a wonderful bright citrus flavor that beautifully melds sweet and sour. This is your fish vinegar (think ceviche). This is the vinegar that will elevate a fruit salad. Combine it with their sesame oil for an Asian-inspired dish. Or with the Black Cumin Oil for a bit of spicy zing. It's just great.

Those are just several of what I tried. The great thing is you can go in and sample to your  heart's content. And when you're ready to buy from either the right or left side, you purchase the glass bottle in sizes and shapes that range from 100 ml to 500 ml. Use up the oil or vinegar and bring it back for a refill (they can't recycle bottles for the spirits). This to me is a great concept, especially for oils which can deteriorate quickly. Buy what you need and come back for more so it's always fresh. It also means you can experiment with flavors or purchase small amounts for baking or cooking without breaking the bank. The staff will handwrite with a white ink pen on the bottle what you've got and it'll come off when washing.

Vom Fass has business-card size descriptions of every product and recipes on the back. Plus, they also host classes, tastings, and private events.

As I'm looking ahead to Chanukah, which begins on Sunday night, I have someone special in mind who will be getting a collection of oils and vinegars as a gift. Need to send a gift? They have free shipping. And, yes, while it's a wonderful neighborhood shop filled with products that are hard to find elsewhere, if you can't get there, you can shop online. But if you can, go! Taste!

Vom Fass Hillcrest is located in Uptown at 1050 University Ave., Suite # E-103.

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