LEWISTON — Nancy O’Brien knows the narrowed eyes and wrinkled noses of folks who wonder how her business thrives by selling olive oils and vinegars.
“We always say when we see their faces, ‘Forget the word ‘vinegar.’ Just drop that out of your vocabulary,'” said O’Brien.
Her business — Fiore Artisan Olive Oils and Vinegars — already has two stand-alone shops in Maine and, on July 26, opened its second mini-store inside Lewiston’s well-known downtown wine and craft beer store The Vault.
O’Brien said the beer and wine complement her aged balsamic vinegars and oils, which, she noted, are decidedly not your mother’s condiments.
As if to prove her point, O’Brien nodded to a seamless, stainless steel vat labeled “Dark Chocolate Balsamic.”
“This is like chocolate sauce,” she said. She grabbed a thimble-sized paper cup from atop a stack. She turned a lever and the thick brown liquid poured slowly from a spigot.
It tasted like fine chocolate syrup. All that seemed missing was a generous scoop of vanilla gelato and a spoon.
“What do you do with these?” O’Brien asked, looking at her collection of 10 aged balsamic vinegars and 10 specialty oils in the center of the Lisbon Street shop. “Anything and everything.”
And perhaps the best part: You can test each one, as well as the various combinations you can make.
O’Brien and her husband, Pat, were introduced to oil and vinegar varieties while visiting Italy. When they decided to leave jobs in Connecticut, working for beverage conglomerate Diageo, they moved into a vacation home on Mount Desert Island.
Then, they hit on the idea of sharing their beloved Italian elixirs with Mainers and tourists.
They opened a shop in Bar Harbor in July 2009. Ten months later, they opened another in Rockland. A mini-store followed inside Bangor Wine and Cheese.
Susan Hall, the Vault’s owner, approached the O’Briens about joining her.
“It’s just really extending the notion of cooking and lifestyle that we began here,” Hall said. “There are a lot of parallels between fine wines, craft beers and balsamics.”
Balsamic vinegars, like wines, are made from grapes and aged. O’Brien’s vinegars are aged for at least 12 years and have a wide variety of flavors. The couple sells dozens of varieties of both olive oil and vinegars in its full stores, but circulates 10 of each in the mini-shop.
The company’s website offers 16 varieties of traditional balsamics, nine white balsamics and two wine vinegars. Recent traditional-style balsamic vinegars at the Vault included pomegranate, honey-ginger and black cherry, as well as a Sicilian lemon white balsamic that tasted like champagne.
Also on its website, Fiore offers 10 flavored oils, 12 extra virgin olive oils from around the world and five specialty oils. Among the oils at the Vault recently were organic garlic olive oil, butternut squash seed oil, Japanese roasted sesame oil and white truffle oil. All for the tasting.
Unlike the aged vinegars, the oils are fresh, usually showing up in Fiori shops within six weeks of the particular oil’s harvest. Importers follow the olive seasons from the northern hemisphere crops in Spain and Greece to southern hemisphere groves in Peru and Australia.
Each oil is graded by a consortium in Italy. Most are extra virgin, which have a very low acidity and flavors that can surprise. Some startle with light and fruity tastes or shock with spice or pepper.
Prices range from $10 for a 200 ml bottle of most of the oils and vinegars to more than $50 for 750 ml bottles of some specialty products, like truffle oil.
O’Brien suggests that anyone who’s curious ought to enter the shop and spend a few minutes sampling the flavors.
“You’ll hear people walk out the door and say, ‘I had no idea there were so many,'” she said.
“Really, there are thousands,” she said.
3 tablespoons Herb de Provence olive oil
3 tablespoons blueberry balsamic vinegar
1 clove minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced shallot
Sea salt and pepper to taste
Whisk ingredients thoroughly until combined. Yields approximately one-half cup.
Use as a salad dressing and/or marinade for poultry.
Spicy Spanish shrimp
1 1/2 pounds of shrimp, peeled and de-veined
3 tablespoons garlic extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes, drained
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 jar (3 ounces) pimento-stuffed olives, drained
1 tablespoon small capers, rinsed and drained
Season shrimp, if desired, with salt and pepper. Heat garlic olive oil in large skillet over medium-high heat and cook shrimp, turning once, for 3 minutes or until shrimp turn pink. Remove to platter and keep warm.
In the same skillet, cook onions, stirring occasionally, 4 minutes or until golden. Stir in red pepper flakes and cook 30 seconds. Stir in remaining ingredients and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer 3 minutes. Return shrimp to skillet and heat through. Serve, if desired, with hot cooked rice.
Source: Fiore Artisan Olive Oils and Vinegars