I wrote in my recent vinaigrette post that my Fairway olive oil came from Puglia in Italy. I reached out to Fairway for more information but wrote that they had not responded. Well bust my buttons if I didn’t open my inbox on Saturday morning to find an email from Steven Jenkins. Jenkins, whose exact title (head buyer and VP?) I am not exactly sure except that he is now pledged to be my personal grocer, was highly dismayed that I had not received his original email response. He quickly forwarded it to me along with 4 very impassioned essays about olive oil and cheese with olive oil and barreled versus non-barreled olive oil. I was struck by the vigor and volume of his words. And Jenkins kindly said that I could run them here! Awesome.
As I began to copy his words into the blog format to show the world the time and care that Fairway takes in responding to the questions of even the smallest blogger, it hit me. Oh. My. God. This man espousing olive oil and cheese knowledge to me was the truly incredible cheese monger of Fairway Markets; the man that David Kamp in his eloquent The United States of Arugula calls “America’s foremost cheese expert”. Jenkins has been in the cheese business since way before I was born. His first book Cheese Primer was published in November 1996 and to date it has been reprinted more than ten times. Cheese Primer was awarded a James Beard Foundation Award in 1997. He is also an active member of the American Cheese Society, and a regular contributor to The Splendid Table on National Public Radio. Jenkins had another book published in 2008, The Food Life, written with the esteemed Mitchell London.
It is my great pleasure to publish the words of Steven Jenkins. First the email I received and then in a second post, his essay on olive oil which I found so compelling. Who gets a letter like this when they email the grocery store?? I am a lucky gal.
Hey there Christa
First, thanks for appreciating the work we do here. Makes a lot of sense, and makes us really happy.
As for the olive oil, I first want you to understand that there are two kinds of olive oil. There is artisanal-production olive oil, and there is mass-production olive oil. Almost all artisanal-production olive oils are extraordinarily good. Almost all mass-production olive oils are not so good. In fact, most of them are execrable. Oxidized. Killed by fluorescent lights. Stale. Musty. Made from low-quality olives. To stock decent locally distributed olive oils (mass-production) requires that a buyer with expertise (such as ME) be involved. This is extremely rare around town and around the country.
Fairway is one of the few stores that stocks artisanal production olive oils. I import the most remarkable array of artisanal olive oils in the entire history of the industry. No other store or importer comes close to the range and selection here.
Our organic oil with the Fairway label is a blend of Umbrian oils and Pugliese oils, about 50/50. This is nonetheless NOT artisanal-production olive oil. But it IS olive oil from a family I know intimately and have visited and done business with for 16 years, exclusively. I am positive that there is no other private-label oil anywhere that is as fresh, tasty and expensively inexpensive as ours. It is my pride and joy. I pay a lot for this mass-production oil, because of its quality, and I charge very little commensurately. The farmers involved in my (our) private-label oil are around six for the Umbrian constituent, and another six or eight for the Pugliese constituent. Their oil, each year, is bought by another family whose business is blending these oils and then selling them to people like me. The oil is harvested and pressed (mulched and centrifuged, actually) at Spoleto, a mill just outside of the Umbrian town, and at Martina Franca, another pretty town in north-central Puglia. this Pugliese oil is pumped under pressure into stainless steel tanker trucks and is delivered to Umbria (Spoleto) where it is blended with the local Umbrian oil, bottled (again, under pressure) and shipped to me via the port at Genoa.
I create the flavor profile for it by tasting quite a few samples of each harvest's October/November pressing from both regions -- Umbria and Puglia.
You have to contrast this procedure of mine with the non-procedure for the two-dozen or so 'artisanal-production' olive oils I import as well, and with the 13 barrel oils I import in 200kg barrels each from a very specific farmer with whom I have been doing business for, again, almost 16 years. I am loyal, and I am very fond of each of my 13 (14! -- the Baena is moving to private-label! Very exciting for us!) Barrel oils. This aforementioned 'non-procedure' is that I BUY THE PRESSING HOWEVER IT TASTES FROM THE MOST RECENT HARVEST AND PRESSING. The farmer has it trucked to the nearest port, and that's it. I receive it at Port Elizabeth (NJ), and that's the end. Until you buy it.
So what you are choosing, that is, the oil YOU use at home, is the finest mass-production private-label olive oil on the face of the earth. That being said, I am urging you to taste the barrel oils, each of which is somewhat more expensive than the organic Umbrian/Pugliese blend you have been devoted to, but that are still the greatest value in our entire store. The greatest value in the entire store. You're paying, what 10 or 11 dollars for the organic. Awfully good olive oil. I am urging you to spend a few dollars more for any one of the 14 barrel oils, two of which are certified organic (Luque/Andalusia and Pugliese) for olive oil that should knock your socks off. And after you have luxuriated in all of my barrel oils I will graduate you to any of the 3 dozen exclusively-imported artisanal HALF-LITERS of generations-old mills and families of farmers from specific regions in Spain, Italy and France. Very expensive olive oil, but magical substances, each of them. And nobody imports them but Fairway.