I'm not a retail store, I'm an experience.
—Bev Penner, owner of Prairie Oils
For most folks, slurping olive oil in tiny shots seems like something you might do on a bet. For Lise Belanger it's the next wave in Winnipeg's ever evolving local food scene.
In June, Belanger and her husband Michael Graham opened Frescolio, Winnipeg's first extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting bar.
At Frescolio, extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars are stored inside fustis, stainless steel, virtually air-tight vessels made in Italy. (Robin Summerfield)
"People are excited about this," Belanger says. "This is where we're at in the Winnipeg food scene, it feels like it's exploding right now," she says. "People are indulging and [olive oil and vinegar] is a pretty inexpensive indulgence."
It looks like she's on to something.
Less than a month later, in late July, OLiV Tasting Room, a Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan-based oil business with eight shops across Canada, opened a Winnipeg location on Academy Road.
But Steinbach-based Prairie Oils & Vinegars Tasting Room was Manitoba's first olive oil tasting bar, opening in November 2012.
"[Business] has been amazing. People come here and they say 'I don't ever want to go back to a grocery store'," says Prairie Oils owner Bev Penner. Unlike the grocery store, customers can taste a variety of oils and get a quick or more involved tasting lesson.
"I'm not a retail store, I'm an experience," she says.
The shops in Manitoba join an estimated 500 olive oil tasting bars already in business across Canada and the States.
The olive oil industry "is one of the fastest growing segments of the global food industry, showing significant growth year after year," according to a May 2013 report by Olive Oil Market, a industry-led group.
Inside Frescolio, customers are given a quick tutorial on proper olive oil tasting techniques. (Robin Summerfield)
"The olive industry has followed the wine industry," says Belanger, whose bottles sell for $5 for 60 mL up to $28 for 750 mL.
Like wine, oils are made using a variety of olives, grown in different countries and harvested at different times in the fruit's growth cycle and aged. Those crush dates are also printed on the labels at Frescolio and Prairie Oils.
The local bars, which have the feel of boutiques rather than grocery stores, stock a variety of unflavoured and naturally flavoured extra virgin olive oils and vinegars.
Inside OLiv Tasting Room, 24 extra virgin olive oils include an eclectic mix of flavours including parmesan, roasted garlic, Persian lime and lemon pepper. White and red balsamic vinegars also come in a variety of flavours like juniper berry, mango, tangerine, fig and jalapeno lime.
Back at Frescolio, Belanger praises the versatility of oils and vinegars in cooking, which can act as both a base or provide a flourish of extra flavour.
It's all about experimenting with the oils, their flavours and cooking properties in the kitchen and combining oils and vinegars to find what tastes best, says Belanger.
"It's another tool in the kitchen."Frescolio's Lise Belanger offers these tips for how to taste olive oil:
Pour about 1 tablespoon into a small tasting cup. (Frescolio uses small, shot-sized stainless steel cups.)
Through your nose, take a large sniff of the oil. Extra virgin olive oil has notes of earth, grass and herbs which vary with variety. (Olive oils are also rated as mild, medium or robust for their heat and peppery notes.)
Place the cup in the palm of one hand and cover with the other hand. The heat from your hands will warm the oil and release the aromas. Wait about 20 seconds.
Breathe in the aroma of the oil paying attention to any scents.
Take all the oil into your mouth, take a quick breath and immediately swallow. (It should almost feel like you're slurping.)
Note all the flavours, tastes and physical properties of the oil. Robust oils may create heat in your throat and have an almost spicy and peppery flavour.