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Staple products they may be, but oils, vinegars and dressings offer a prime opportunity for independent retailers to offer something different and become a destination for curious home cooks – new and seasoned alike. “Speciality retailers should look to stock a range of oils which cater to home cooks looking for inspiration, education and support with their oil choices,” begins Kim Matthews, commercial director for Edible Oils Limited. “Over the last couple of years, and especially since the start of the pandemic, we have seen consumer interest and engagement with oils soar.”
Education is a key driver of this sector’s success, he continues. “With research showing that over half of British cooks find oils confusing, we’ve also seen the need from consumers for help on education to help make the right choice of oil for the right dish or occasion. As a result of these trends, shoppers are experimenting more with different types of oil and spending more in the process.”
Olive oil may be a stalwart of the fine food independent’s shelves, but that’s not to say that there’s nothing left to explore. “It may not sound adventurous, but our range is sourced to reflect the hugely varied characteristics of different regions and olive varieties,” says Holly Sands, buyer at Sous Chef. “When you compare the intense, fiery flavour of Coratina olives from Puglia in our Muraglia oil to the mellow, rich warmth of the Grand Brahis Noir, made with black olives from Provence, you get a sense of the stark contrast and variety that’s out there.”
With today’s shopper more interested in the health credentials of what they consume than ever before, it’s worth promoting the natural benefits of quality olive oil. “It’s important to understand that not all olive oil is created equally. The choices that you find on the supermarket shelves are often over-processed refined ‘blends’ resulting in lower oleic acid, reduced polyphenol content and a bland, flat taste,” explains Tara Chicharro, co-director of Picualia. “High in monounsaturated fat, olive oil is perhaps most renowned for its heart health benefits, but there is much more to olive oil than cardioprotective properties.
“Oleic acid acts as an antioxidant and has been shown to increase absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K,” she continues. “Growing evidence also suggests that polyphenols in olives not only enhance the oil’s flavour profile, they are shown to promote protection against a range of diseases through their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.”
Tom Laki, co-founder of Honest Toil, thinks the fine food retailer’s route to quality olive oils should go relatively unchallenged from mainstream shops. “I think the nature of supermarkets is always going to rely on small margins, buying in volume, and squeezing suppliers,” he explains. “Consequently they’ll inevitably work with big-industry; there’s just no way this model can work with low-intervention, small-scale producers.
“There’ll always be attempts for supermarket brands to mimic smaller businesses whose provenance has credibility,” he says, continuing that he is, “always optimistic about people’s conscience driving support for independent business. As long as affordability doesn’t stand in the way, I think we’re moving in this direction.”
William Uden, founding partner of Aeithalis, agrees. “Food chain transparency is going to become more and more important in the future and companies that can embrace it now and build that level of trust with their customers will flourish.”
A pioneer in the UK’s refill EVOO market, Aeithalis operates as transparently as possible – sharing its values on social media in order to spread the good word. “We post videos of our grove and regularly out myths and mistruths on olive oil production on social media. We’ve found that there is a huge market for olive oil that people can feel positive about buying, not just for its taste but for our values.”
Rupert Parsons, managing director of Womersley Foods agrees that there’s a stark contrast between supermarkets and independents when it comes to oils, vinegars and dressings. “There is a big difference in the habits of the supermarket shopper, who will often have a list of regular items to tick, and the fine food emporium visitor who will often be looking for esoteric ingredients,” he explains.
“For the latter, those finds will be either for a specific recipe or an inspired ‘find’. Our experience over the years is that it is the owners and staff who make the difference here, acting as our ‘ambassadors’ and proudly introducing their shoppers to the stock items they love themselves as well as finding ingredient solutions for them.”
Holly recommends thinking internationally when stocking your oils, vinegars and dressings shelf. “For us it’s about recognising the different usages across cuisines – from using a Provence tarragon vinegar to pep up a plate of oysters, to adding Chinkiang vinegar to a Chinese pork dish for smoky, complex acidity.”
And, as ever, versatility sells. “I think it’s becoming more common to think of dressings outside of salads – and what is a salad anyway?,” says Holly. “Our vinegars can be part of so many dishes, so they are an excellent way of increasing a basket size with something the shopper will get 101 uses from – now that really is great value,” says Rupert.
With health and ethical credentials experiencing real consumer appetite, what should indies look for to truly modernise their range? “I think people will be looking for that next punchy flavour hit that transforms the profile of a dish,” says Sous Chef’s Holly.
There’s no shortage of exposés on the subject. A book called Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil describes it as having always been a favourite of fraudsters, who take advantage of consumers’ unfamiliarity with genuine EVOO to sell dubious blends in its stead. An estimated 80% of Italian olive oil on the market today is fake.
The run of the mill
One would hope certifications like PDO and IGP would be sufficient guarantee, but scandals still occur. Major Tuscan mills in our vicinity went under investigation some years ago when DNA from greek olive cultivars was found in an IGP Tuscan oil. Look for oils from smaller geographical areas and specialised mills and producers when sourcing.
To blend or not to blend?
Some of the best EVOO in the world uses more than one olive variety, while some are monocultivar. It’s a great sign if a label lists the cultivar/s used because it signals provenance and a level of production detail absent from generic industrial blends.
The taste test
Whether delicate, medium fruttato or fruttato intenso, it should have a balanced aroma and flavour and the presence of some bitterness and pepperiness. These flavours are a direct expression of the antioxidative polyphenols present in the oil, those magical properties that make extra virgin both delicious and healthy. They deteriorate over time if an oil contains defects or is subject to prolonged heat and light, so always buy oil in dark bottles and display them in a cool area.
Love is blind
Colour is not an indicator of quality. We’re so conditioned to judge by visual cues that tasting panels use dark glass cups.
Filtering removes microparticles of vegetable matter and water that trigger deterioration in EVOO.
We’re currently developing a high-antioxidant EVOO, naturally high in Vitamin E, by using innovative milling methods and select cultivars. It will be on the market by Christmas.
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