Saleta and Linda Cameron are originally from Alabama but have lived in Annapolis for many years. Saleta's soft and lilting southern accent occasionally sneaks into her speech, and a glance into the sisters' shop in Annapolis Towne Centre reveals that their Southern roots run deep.
Cleo's Fine Oils and Vinegars, named after the Camerons' grandmother, is delightfully uncluttered, sophisticated and bright. The staff is gracious and welcoming. And the products are amazing.
Saleta is an accountant in Annapolis; Linda is an anesthesiologist at Anne Arundel Medical Center. While the sisters naturally have minds for numbers and formulas, they are at the same time remarkably creative.
The store has an open floor plan with dramatically high ceilings and a dark wood floor. Tables hold various sea salts, dried herbs and gift items, while the walls are lined with kegs of olive oils and stainless steel kettles of balsamic vinegars.
Cleo's is a showcase for high-quality oils and vinegars. While similar shops may be contracted to purchase from specific distributors, brands or vendors, Cleo's remains independent.
"Our customers need to know that they can expect superior quality from Cleo's every time they fill a bottle. So we taste our way through hundreds of choices from Europe and California until we find the best. Then we send it to a lab for testing" Saleta says.
"We search for producers who can meet our standards and business expectations. Then we insist on buying relatively small batches to ensure consistent quality."
Olive oil is actually the juice of olives, a fruit low in sugar and high in oil. Believed to have originated in Asia Minor, olive trees are now indigenous to the entire Mediterranean and have been transplanted successfully in California, Peru, Argentina and Chile. Interestingly, with few exceptions, olives cannot be eaten directly from the tree. The fruit contains oleopurein, a bitter component unique to the olive that must be removed by rinsing in a chemical solution, brine or water prior to processing.
Olive oil has become popular in America in the past 20 years (although it has been a staple in other diets for ages) largely for its great taste and scientifically verified nutritional benefits. But there are so many types of olive oils on supermarket shelves today, and so many brands, that being a savvy shopper can be difficult. It is important to read the label on the bottle and note the ingredients list.
Extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality and consequently the most expensive type of olive oil. It is the essence of an olive: clean, pure, flavorful juice manufactured with strict specifications.
The oil must be extracted from olives picked at the peak of ripeness from the tree -- not from the ground. The olives must be mechanically crushed, specifically, under exact thermal conditions in order to preserve the juice's integrity. No solvents or additives are allowed in extraction, and the juice must come from the olive itself (as opposed to the pit or peel).
Finally, the oil must pass chemical tests in a laboratory to establish that it is absolutely free of defects yet retains a consistent, pleasant flavor.
At this time, there is no federal standard to guarantee that oil labeled as "extra virgin" is the real deal. The International Olive Oil Council and the California Olive Oil Council do mandate standards for labeling. Look for their seals on the bottle to ensure you are getting a quality product.
Cleo's has close relationships with many California vendors, so you can shop the store with the confidence that you are getting what you pay for and the nutritional benefits of the oil are intact.
Lesser oils are labeled simply "olive oil." These oils may still be pure, but probably were made with olives from many countries or producers and could be a blend of imperfect extra virgin olive oil and refined olive oil. Regardless, they must be made strictly with olives and produced without solvents.
Organic olive oil refers only to manufacture with organically grown olives, and can be ordinary oil or extra virgin.
Olive oil needs to be carefully stored in order to maintain quality.
"Olive oil is delicate: it hates heat, light and air," Saleta says.
"Many people keep their oil on the countertop near the stove - this is the fastest way to cause it to spoil."
Instead, keep it in a cool, dark cabinet. Cleo's sells a particular type of pour spout that has a flip lid, ensuring that no air can get into the oil while pouring or storing.
"Water is the arch nemesis of oil," Saleta notes, "because it creates rancidity."
At Cleo's you can bring in a clean and dry bottle for refill. If that bottle has any water or residue though, you may need to find a new one.
Because pure olive oil is adverse to air and moisture, Saleta doesn't recommend purchasing types with bits of herbs, peppers or other flavor enhancers in the bottle.
Cleo's sells "fused" oils. This process eliminates the possibility of botulism and other bacteria by melding the herbs, spices or citrus with the oil during crushing, then filtering any particles out of the oil before bottling.
Olive oil is a rapidly expanding market rife with as many great marketing schemes as there are producers. Visit Cleo's for a tasting of several different types of true, pure olive oil to determine just what your palate prefers.
Saleta and Linda can help you understand the many nutritional benefits of olive oil, and you can even attend a class to learn more about how to taste and appreciate the many factors that determine a fine oil. Then go back to your kitchen and find creative ways to implement healthy olive oil into your culinary creations!
Here are three recipes to get you started. Visit http://www.cleosfineoils.com to find more.
Basic Balsamic Vinaigrette
Every cook must master a basic dressing, if only to avoid paying for overpriced and poorly flavored simple syrup and oil in a jar. Once you have this recipe, embellish it with shallots, honey, garlic, fresh herbs or fruit juice. This dressing can be made with any of the many varieties of Cleo's fused balsamic vinegars. I have in mind the fig, citrus or even dark chocolate varieties.
1/4 cup Balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, more or less to taste
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Whisk together first four ingredients in a bowl. Add olive oil in a slow steady stream, whisking to combine. Toss lightly with greens at service. Do not overdress.
Fast, Fabulous Asparagus and Shrimp
Toss cooked asparagus and shrimp with Cleo's Agrumato Lemon Extra Virgin Olive Oil. You can steam the asparagus and shrimp separately, or roast together at 400 degrees for about 9 minutes.
Finish with sea salt and ground pepper. For spicier flavor, sprinkle fresh lemon juice over the asparagus, then drizzle with Cleo's Chipotle Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Habanero Sea Salt.
Olive Oil Cake
Olive oil cake is supremely moist and not overly sweet. Most recipes include citrus flavors, while some add in fresh herbs. Here is a recipe you can master, then move on to adding the flavors you love. It is important to use a nice quality olive oil here, but you don't need anything fancy and you definitely don't want anything too strong or pungent. Drizzle lightly with melted chocolate or a glaze punctuated with orange liqueur or orange extract. Alternatively, simply dust with a sifting of powdered sugar.
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup fruity olive oil
3 large eggs
3/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup orange liqueur (I used Grand Marnier)
1 teaspoon each orange and lemon zest
1/4 cup orange juice (roughly the juice of the orange you zested)
Whisk together the dry ingredients, set aside.
Whisk the eggs and sugar. Add in the milk, orange liqueur, zest and juice. Whisk in the olive oil. Add wet and dry ingredients, then pour into a well-greased 9 or 10 inch round cake pan or bundt pan.
Bake at 350 for 50-60 minutes, or until a pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan at least 20 minutes.
NOTE: Don't be afraid to let the exterior crust caramelize: don't under-bake, which is indicated by a fallen, wrinkly spot on top of the cake.