When I ask Tracy Camera Lockhart, co-owner of the olive oil emporium Olive Scene, to describe the first time she tasted really good olive oil, she doesn't say what I expected.
"Shocking," was her response. Lockhart is the first to say that she's rarely at a loss for words. But her first taste of the "ultra-premium" product she now sells in her store left her speechless.
"The first taste isn't like tasting fine wine," she says. "It's more shocking that it can have so many flavors [that] are never really thought of."
I am at the Olive Scene in Rocky River (19132 Old Detroit Rd., 440-895-9999, theolivescene.com), the oldest of the Olive Scene's four locations, to experience that shock. Like more than half of all American households, I use olive oil on a fairly regular basis. Its oft-cited health benefits are a motivating factor, and over the years I've come to enjoy, or at least appreciate, its muted, slightly bitter taste.
According to Lockhart, though, I likely haven't been getting the good stuff. A 2010 study from the University of California Davis Olive Center found approximately seven out of 10 grocery store bottles did not meet the International Olive Council standards for extra virgin olive oil, despite carrying the coveted label.
Government subsidies for olive growers, Lockhart explains, have led to widespread EVOO fraud in several Mediterranean nations. The product we often get on the open market, she adds, is chemically processed, adulterated with other oils, or just old.
"If it doesn't taste flavorful, what you're tasting probably isn't to IOC standard," says Lockhart. Perhaps worse, consumers of substandard olive oil are missing out on most of the touted health benefits.
Veronica Foods, the Olive Scene's importer-producer, claims to deal only in the real extra virgin stuff. My goal here is to find out if the oil at the Olive Scene is really leaps and bounds above the stuff I buy from the grocery store.
So far, Lockhart has made a convincing case. A self-described "businesswoman through and through," she has a penchant for throwing out catchy slogans like, "Think outside the salad!" She and her partners, Anne Palmer Eren and Alice Marie Wiegand, all came from ethnic Cleveland-area families with strong food traditions.
"We almost called our business 'Two Italians and a Greek,'" jokes Lockhart.
The oil at the Olive Scene (as well as the equally flavorful balsamic vinegar) is kept in shiny metal tanks called fustis. Information cards list numerical ratings of the oil's fruitiness, bitterness, pungency, and even a mass spectrometer reading (!) to measure the oil's freshness.
Lockhart coats the bottom of a shot-sized container with an oil called Koroneiki (named for the Greek olive from which it's made) and enthusiastically walks me through the tasting process. As instructed, I take a giant whiff of the product, picking up (at her prompting) the smell of banana peel and freshly cut grass. Then, I take the shot.
At first, my brain has trouble recognizing all the flavors at once. It registers a very pleasing viscosity, one with a smoothness unmatched by oil at even the finest Italian restaurants I've dined in. It picks up on all kinds of floral and fruit flavors going off like a rogue fireworks display on my taste buds.
There's a spiciness taking hold in the back of my throat. Lockhart encourages me to cough. It helps, she says.
"That was a lighter one," she tells me.
The next one — Hojblanca (Spanish) — is considered bold, an appropriate description. The texture is like velvet, but the flavor so pungent and bitter — not in an unpleasant way — that for a few seconds after I take it, my vocal cords are rendered useless.
I am, literally, speechless.