It's been years since Maggie Lebherz lived in sunny Spain as a college exchange student. Yet just one taste of fresh olive oil takes her back in spirit.
"In 2007, I lived with a family in Salamanca, and my host mother cooked everything in olive oil, in a big cast-iron skillet," recalls Lebherz. "She rarely changed the oil, and it became spiced. Whether she was frying potatoes in olive oil or making paella, every meal was so delicious."
After Lebherz returned to the States and graduated from college, her cravings for the quality olive oil she'd enjoyed abroad turned her into an entrepreneur.
She launched Lebherz Oil & Vinegar Emporium (L.O.V.E.) in downtown Frederick in 2010. "We carry more than 50 artisanal olive oils and vinegars," says the 25-year-old proprietor. Our suppliers come from Italy, Tunisia, Spain, France and California, to name a few."
With boutique olive oil shops popping up in Maryland and nationwide, an award-winning restaurant near Boston named EVOO (the acronym for extra virgin olive oil), and new products that show its versatility, olive oil is enjoying the culinary spotlight.
"Americans consume [on average] more than a liter of olive each year in the U.S.," says Curtis Cord, executive editor of the Olive Oil Times, an online publication based in Rhode Island. "Greece consumes about 20 liters, so we have a ways to go. But there's definitely been growth in the U.S. in terms of its popularity."
That's good news for the Pompeian Olive Oil Company, which has operated in Baltimore since the early 1900s. The company imports freshly harvested, pressed olive oils from around the globe, which are bottled onsite.
Products include Classic Mediterranean Olive Oil and Extra Light Tasting Olive Oil, and Pompeian is among America's top-selling brands, according to company officials.
"We have seen olive oil catapult in terms of sales over the last 10 years," says Rich Fryling, vice president of marketing. "Today, people have a more sophisticated taste palate, the price of olive oil is significantly lower than it used to be, and people are more health-conscious."
It's true that olive oil boasts monounsaturated fats — the so-called good fats. Various studies have shown that the antioxidants in olive oil may help to reduce the risks of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol.
"Really, it's fruit juice," says Fryling. He notes that olive oil isn't vegetable-based, but is actually fruit oil that's been mechanically pressed from sun-ripened olives.
Owing to the vast array of olive varieties, the liquid can have variations in color (e.g., amber gold, pale green) and flavor (mild to peppery), as well as its bouquet.
"A good olive oil is beautifully perfumed," says Cindy Wolf, executive chef of Charleston, the award-winning restaurant in Harbor East where the seasonal menu may include lobster soup with curry or shrimp and grits.
Wolf, a James Beard nominee, says unequivocally that she loves olive oil, especially the extra virgin variety. "I think it's one of the best things you can work with," said wolf, who also co-owns several other Baltimore restaurants. "It tastes like fresh olives, and has such a wonderful flavor."
At Samos restaurant in Baltimore's Greektown community, olive oil is also the not-so-secret ingredient in their Mediterranean-inspired fare.
Whether it's garlicky roasted eggplant dip, whole red snapper broiled with lemon and herbs, or a Greek salad with vinaigrette, olive oil plays a starring role.
"We use a good olive oil that comes from Greece, and we go through gallons of it," says Michael Georgalas, whose family owns the popular restaurant. "We use it in different ways, sometimes in cooking applications, and at other times we drizzle it on top to finish a dish."
Locally, specialty shops give customers the option of sampling gourmet olive oils. At L.O.V.E., the oils are stored in large stainless-steel canisters known as "fustis" [pronounced foo-stees], making the process of sampling each variety evocative of a wine tasting.
"We pour all of our oils into custom glass bottles — straight from the tap," says Lebherz. "They're extremely fresh, light and pure."
The store's infused olive oil varieties include blood orange, herbs de Provence, Persian lime, and wild mushroom and sage. Among the big sellers is an olive oil that tastes like butter, which has been pressed from black olives.
"I've tried a lot of oils," she says, "but none that taste this fresh and delicious."
In July, Elizabeth Nuttle opened E.N. Olivier, a store in Bare Hills that stocks olive oils and vinegars, as well as gourmet condiments and salts and beauty products made from olive oil.
"I wanted to bring people around the bend and show them that it's not hard to cook good food with good ingredients," she said. Her shop stocks about 20 types of olive oil from around the world, each a "varietal" (meaning made from one type of olive), based on whatever is most fresh at any given time.
Among Nuttle's favorites are the Picual, a medium-flavored Australian oil; the Cobrancosa from Portugal, which has a more peppery finish; and a lemon-fused oil in which the lemons are crushed with the olives, "which adds another dimension of flavor," she said.
The shop is a favorite of Kevin Relf, chef of the new WEST Kitchen and Tavern, inside the Loews Annapolis Hotel.
WEST features a hearth oven, fresh herb garden, and a raw bar. For one of his recipes — the grilled artichoke with lemon-fused aioli — the chef incorporates Meyer lemon-infused olive oil that he purchases from Seasons.
"We're regionally and seasonally motivated," says Relf, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. "We'll seek inspiration through local farmers and partners in the greater Chesapeake region."
Back in Baltimore at Pompeian, its historic facility will soon become a tourist destination.
The company is in the process of building a 4,000-square-foot visitor's center, tentatively slated to open this winter. It will have a state-of-the-art kitchen, an on-site chef and official tasting room and more, say officials.
"There will also be displays about the history of olive oil," says Fryling. "People can tour the factory, and taste the product. There's a lot of great heritage in that bottle."
Grilled Artichokes with Meyer Lemon-Fused Aioli
For the artichokes:
1 globe artichoke
salt, fresh ground black pepper, Old Bay, to taste
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon "Seasons" Meyer Lemon-Fused Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 teaspoon parsley, minced
For the aioli:
1 pasteurized egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon garlic, mashed to a paste
1/2 ounce Meyer lemon juice, fresh squeezed
1/4 ounce water
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 ounces extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces "Seasons" Meyer Lemon-Fused Extra Virgin Olive Oil
salt, fresh ground black pepper, Old Bay, to taste
Meyer lemon juice, fresh squeezed, to taste
To make the artichokes, trim the top of the artichoke to remove pointy ends. Trim stem of the artichoke to cut off bitter ends and small leaves. Cut the artichoke in half, and place in a pot with a grate to keep the artichoke above water. Add a half inch of water. Cover and turn on to medium-high heat. Bring water to a simmer, and reduce heat to medium-low, steaming for 20-25 minutes until leaves are tender, but stem is not mushy. Remove from pot and cool down in the refrigerator. Once cool enough to handle, remove inside "choke" and purple pointy leaves.
Brush with extra virgin olive oil, season with salt, pepper, and Old Bay, and grill 2-3 minutes on each side. Garnish with "Seasons" Lemon-Fused Extra Virgin Olive Oil and minced parsley.
To make the aioli, combine the egg yolk, garlic, lemon juice, water, sugar, and mustard in a bowl. Whisk constantly until the mixture is slightly foamy. Gradually add the oils in a thin stream, constantly whisking, until they are incorporated and mayonnaise is thick. Adjust the flavor with salt, pepper, Old Bay, and lemon juice.
Courtesy of Kevin Relf, Executive Chef of West Kitchen & Tavern
Maggie's Lemon Olive Oil Cake with Wild Blueberry Icing
For the cake:
3/4 cup L.O.V.E.'s Eureka Lemon Olive Oil 1 teaspoon for greasing the pan
1 whole lemon
1 cup of flour
5 large eggs (separated, save 4 of the egg whites)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
11/2 tablespoons Sugar in the Raw
For the icing:
3 tablespoons L.O.V.E.'s Wild Blueberry Balsamic Vinegar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 cup heavy whipping cream
To make the cake, put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch springform pan with some oil, then line the bottom with a round of parchment paper. Put some oil on top of the parchment as well. Grate 11/2 teaspoons of lemon zest. Squeeze 11/2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice for later. Beat all five egg yolks together with 1/2 cup of sugar in a large bowl. Beat at high speed until thick and pale (about 4 minutes). Reduce speed to medium and add L.O.V.E. lemon olive oil and saved lemon juice beating until just combined. It may still look separated at this point. Stir in the flour and lemon zest (do not beat). Beat egg whites (from 4 eggs) with 1/2 teaspoon salt in another large bowl. Beat until foamy, then add 1/4 cup sugar a little at a time, beating, until egg whites just hold soft peaks (about 3 minutes). Gently fold one-third of whites into yolk mixture to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly. Transfer batter to springform pan and tap to release any air bubbles. Sprinkle top evenly with remaining 11/2 tablespoons of Sugar in the Raw. Bake until puffed and golden (about 45 minutes). Cool cake completely before icing.
To make the icing, chill beaters, icing ingredients and bowl in refrigerator for 30 minutes prior. Beat 1 cup heavy whipping cream and 2 tablespoons granulated sugar on high in electric mixing bowl. Once peaks form, add L.O.V.E.'s Wild Blueberry Balsamic Vinegar one tablespoon at a time until all 3 tablespoons are incorporated. Chill the icing. Ice the lemon olive oil cake once completely cooled and icing has chilled for at least 20 minutes.