Taste-testing adventures at the ABQ Olive Oil Company
Story and Photos by Juliana Bilowich
Each time my Italian brother-in-law returns from his regular visits back home, his suitcases burst with olive oils and pasta sauces meant to tide over his taste buds until the next trip. Can’t authentic international products be found closer to home? Indeed, since 2013, bona fide oils and vinegars from Italy and beyond are available for taste and purchase from the ABQ Olive Oil Company.
Rubbing elbows with Flying Star and Sprouts in Corrales, ABQ Olive Oil Company, a one-room tasting-bar, boasts the best oil and vin from around the world. “People don’t know real olive oil. The first time I tried it, I couldn’t believe the taste,” says co-owner Ralph Campbell. The engineer by day, kitchen-connoisseur by night has dreamt of opening a tasting store since traveling through Middle America, of all places, where shops like this one have been meeting with success for years. With good reason: quality oils are as healthy as they are tasty.
If you are not yet an extra virgin olive oil snob, maybe you should be. False promises of virginity fool us in grocery stores but clog arteries and taste buds. “If it tastes like nothing, it’s a bad sign,” says Carol Campbell, Ralph’s partner in crime. “Olives don’t taste like nothing, so why would olive oil? They deodorize it to cover up the taste of rancid oil.” Check the crush date, country sourcing, and polyphenol count, all noted proudly by the Albuquerque store.
Prodigies of California-based olive oil distributor Veronica Foods, the Campbells are sticklers for purity. Traditional dark balsamics age nearly two decades in oak or hickory barrels before instilled with elements of blackberry ginger, for example, or the Valentine’s Day favorites of dark chocolate and espresso. The white vinegars, lighter in both color and consistency, fall at the intersection of sizzle and sweet. To wow unsuspecting dinner guests, one might combine vinegar with water for a non-alcoholic seltzer alternative, or apply as shrimp marinade—“But only if you really know what you are doing,” cautions Ralph proudly.
The Campbells certainly do. The shop’s extra virgin olive oils, lab-tested twice before sold as certifiably untampered, share shelf-space with fused and infused olive oils. Infused oils have been imbued with essence of garlic, chipotle, Tuscan herbs, and countless others; fused oils, on the other hand, retain extra virginity. Paired from the first planting, olives and, say, Tunisian Baklouti peppers are picked and crushed together at the heart- and tongue-warming ratio of fifteen pounds of peppers to every pound of olives. Together, they create the fused, flavored, still-virgin olive oil that keeps the Campbell’s customers returning for more.
Oil tasting can be an adventure, and comes with quirks. “Rub the ramekin gently on your wrist to warm up the oil,” says Carol as she hand-picks my tasting lineup. “Oh no, not lemon, I wouldn’t do that to you.” Ralph’s better half, who runs the now two-store operation, ponders my palette with the attentiveness of a matchmaker: “Here, rosemary.” Tasting sans bread, the oil is sucked up and savored; the aged balsamic, sweetened only by the sugar in the ripened grape, is thrown back like a shot and left to trickle down the tongue. “Customers come in assuring me they don’t like vinegar. We prove them wrong.”
Operating under the motto “Try before you buy,” the entrepreneurial duo insists their products sell themselves. “We don’t push anything,” chuckles Carol as she banters with staff, most of them long-term and included in business decision-making. “We just help people choose.” And choice is certainly the most grueling part of the oil- and vinegar-tasting experience. While the products are reasonably priced, the variety is torturous in this kitchen candy-store. Customers at the ABQ Olive Oil Company’s second location at Paseo and Wyoming may peruse the aisles for well over an hour, wandering between metal fustis, dipping chunks of bread and sometimes cheese into the best oils a tongue can taste, trying to decide. Aspiring chefs and health aficionados alike experience boundless flavors—from the nutty grip of butternut squash seed infused olive oil to the crisp, no-sour bite of Gravenstein apple white balsamic vinegar. Shop owner’s tip: Enjoy the former with green chile fused olive oil, not surprisingly the store’s top seller, for a scandalously good pairing. True to the store’s motto, just try it, and you will buy it.
10700 Corrales Road NW, Albuquerque, 505-899-9293
8001 Wyoming Boulevard NE, Albuquerque, 505-821-1119