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Darien Discovery: Olive Oil Can Be Sensational

You can't know just how wonderful olive oil and infused balsamic vinegar can be until you try the really fine ones. Visit Olivette in downtown Darien and be surprised.

For the price of a few visits to Starbucks ($12.99), you can get a small bottle (200 ml) of olive oil that can impress your wine-snob friends when you serve it with bread, in a salad or in a meal.

Then you can give them a bottle as a gift at Christmas or for the hosts at dinner parties.

But let it impress you first. You may even want a bigger bottle.

At , a new store at 1084 Post Rd. (diagonally across the street from the and the ), let owner Alina Lawrence guide you around the small store's very large collection of gourmet olive oils and balsamic vinegars, giving you free samples along the way.

"We'll tell you everything about when the olives were crushed, where, and what type of olives—and also the good chemistry in them: all the polyphenol counts, the oleic acid, the free fatty acids (FFAs)."

Lower peroxide and free fatty acid levels are healthier, and more polyphenols and oleic acid amounts are better, she said. (The Olive Oil Source, an industry website, has more information on the chemical characteristics of olive oil.)

The more recent the olives were crushed to get the oil, the healthier and better it is, Lawrence says. Over time, she says, oxygen gets into the oil and breaks down some of the chemical structure.

The oldest oils in her store are from last May, and she's eagerly awaiting her next shipment of more recent crushings. Olive oil generally comes from Europe, California, Australia and South America.

"We have no Greek olive oil this year," she said. "They didn't do that great."

From Europe to Darien

Alina herself was born in Romania (that isn't a Spanish accent she speaks with, although both Spanish and Romanian are derived from Latin), and she grew up knowing good olive oil in her native country and in Greece, where she has relatives.

When she came to America five years ago as a business student, she couldn't find any good olive oils.

She met her future husband, Dee Lawrence, in New York City. After five years the couple decided to move closer to his job in Stamford, and they decided on Darien.

Within weeks of moving into town, Alina set up shop as a retailer of gourmet olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a few other gourmet food items. It helped that her mother-in-law has a similar shop in Virginia Beach, VA.

A business opportunity

Lawrence said she saw a business opportunity with the store after realizing that even some gourmet balsamic vinegar she'd bought at a store on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was horrible. She and her husband, foodies both, "couldn't even use it," she said.

Even high-priced olive oil found in stores today will have extra virgin olive oil that doesn't identify where the olives were grown, Lawrence said.

Some merely say the product was produced in Italy—meaning the olives could come from anywhere, she said, pointing out that Italy is a major importer of olives.

American consumers have been victimized by a lot of poorly made and even purposefully mislabeled olive oil, according to a University of California, Davis, study released in 2010 (attached). A spokesman for an industry association has disputed the study.

As Lawrence takes a customer around the store, she'll demonstrate how to slurp a tiny sip of oil so that the taste of it comes out in the mouth. She goes from more delicate to more robust olive oils, some with a quite peppery aftertaste, which comes from large amounts of polyphenols.

"I have some customers who come in and say, 'I want the strongest you have,' because they know these have the most health benefits," she said.

Balsamic vinegars

While olive oil is most prominent in the store's name, about as many balsamic vinegars are available at Olivetti. Vinegar is an aged product, and older vinegars are just fine, Lawrence said.

Many of her balsamic vinegars are infused with flavors such as decaf coffee, raspberry, or mixtures such as cranberry and pear. She has some white balsamic vinegars infused with lemon ("amazing on salad," Lawrence said), blood orange and apricot. Some of the sweeter balsamics are used by Italians on ice cream.

For some varieties the fruit is crushed with the grapes as the grapes become vinegar. Others are infused afterward. At least one variety of her balsamics isn't even made from grapes—honey was used instead, and the taste permeates it.

The store's dozens of oils and vinegars were all individually chosen by Lawrence after visiting her national supplier, Veronica Foods in Oakland, CA.

After her customers have tasted so much, she said, they have a common reaction:

"You know what my customers complain about? 'I can't decide.'"

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