The value of Italian oil for fine food retailers

14 November 2022, 13:14 PM
  • Charles Carey, The Oil Merchant, talks us through the fundamentals of the must-stock product
The value of Italian oil for fine food retailers

It was Autumn 1984 when I drove to Tuscany to buy my first olive oil, becoming one of the first people to begin importing single-estate-bottled extra virgin olive oil into the UK. Olive oil of this quality spoke of the land that it came from, and the knowledge and passion of the producers, just like chateau-bottled wine.

How important is Italy to your business?
We love Italian products, but we are aware that where they led the field in quality olive oil, there is competition now from many other countries. Back in 1980s many buyers of good olive oil considered that Italian oil was by far the best from Europe and Tuscan oil was the best Italian oil.

Italian producers also spent time considering their packaging. It was easy to sell. But, as far as extra virgin olive oil is concerned, Italy must be aware that our customers now understand that you can buy very good Spanish oil, and appreciation of Greek oil is growing. France is still lagging behind in appreciation, but there are some interesting oils from the southern hemisphere.

What are the fundamentals of Italian oils that our readers should be aware of?
Extra Virgin Olive Oils are similar to wines; different varieties of olives create different flavour profiles, as grape varieties create differing wine styles. Italy can provide all these profiles.

From specific estates, farms or village co-operatives delicate oils from Lake Garda or Liguria can be compared with medium fruity oils from the Molise and Puglia, and Tuscany, Umbria and Sicily can provide more intense flavours. On a more commercial level, Italians are accomplished blenders of oils from different countries.

How should independent fine food retailers approach stocking Italian oils?
Any good delicatessen should have at least five good estate bottled olive oils, as well as a more commercial, cheaper, oil for everyday cooking. Those estate bottled oils should have differing flavour profiles as suggested above. So Italy could be a store’s sole provider of olive oil.

But why not spread flavour profiles amongst different countries? There is no argument that Italy is a producer of great olive oils, but just as I would not say that a good wine from Burgundy was better than a good wine from Bordeaux, I am not going to say that a good Italian oil is better than a good oil from, say, Spain. They are just different.

How about other Italian products?
After extra virgin olive oil, our strongest seller is Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. We have two suppliers; La Vecchia Dispensa and Giuseppe Giusti. La Vecchia Dispensa produce very special vinegars with a huge amount of care and attention.

They are very traditional both in their production methods and the finished look; everything is still done by hand. Having always imported one balsamic vinegar from Giuseppe Giusti, we now have stock of their wider range. They have been producing balsamic vinegar since 1605 and their flavoured balsamic and striking packaging have strong appeal on shop shelves.

I still puzzle why buyers of really good (and therefore likely to be expensive) oils then blend them with dubious quality vinegar. I wish we could sell more of the good ones like the varietal vinegars from Cesare in Piedmont.

Of our store cupboard ingredients there is one which stands out for popularity – both with shops and with private customers – and that is La Favorita Live’s Pesto alla Genovese. Made with fresh basil from Liguria the sauce is left unpasteurised as it contains no Parmesan. Fresh and intense it is a kitchen must have (and great to have on standby to feed vegan friends).

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