Food for Thought

Tasting Bar with a Twist

Signature Oil & Vinegar in Comox offers a unique new culinary experience

“The first time I sampled authentic extra virgin olive oil in California I was pleasantly surprised at the taste,” says Lisa Whitmore in the Signature Oil & Vinegar tasting room.  “The difference was remarkable.  Since then, I have used nothing but quality EVOO in my cooking.  My three teenagers think that I am becoming a better cook, but it’s not me!  It’s the EVOO!’”  Photo by Seadance Photography

“The first time I sampled authentic extra virgin olive oil in California I was pleasantly surprised at the taste,” says Lisa Whitmore in the Signature Oil & Vinegar tasting room. “The difference was remarkable. Since then, I have used nothing but quality EVOO in my cooking. My three teenagers think that I am becoming a better cook, but it’s not me! It’s the EVOO!’” Photo by Seadance Photography

There’s a new bar in town, and it doesn’t serve beer! It is not open until the wee hours of the morning and you will never find a dance band there. You are, however, guaranteed to have some fun, learn something new and have an extraordinary culinary experience at the new Signature Oil and Vinegar tasting bar in Comox.

After more than 20 years of providing Comox Valley residents with expert wine making experiences, Signature Wines’ co-owners, Sigrid Lees and Lisa Whitmore, have expanded their business. In the 600-square-foot showroom that once housed wine-related gifts and accessories now sits a gleaming array of 37 stainless steel dispensing tanks called ‘fustis.’ However, it is not wine, but high-quality extra virgin olive oil and imported Italian balsamic vinegars that are on tap and ready for tasting.

While they still do wine making, this new addition to Signature’s product line is proving to be a welcome complement to the culinary scene in the Comox Valley. Customers are raving about the selection, high quality and value of their oils and balsamic vinegars. Adding the tasting room has turned out to be a perfect marriage for Signature’s business model. It has also proven to be a boost for businesses in the Valley in general. Despite the fact that it just opened in February 2014, the tasting room is already on the map as a ‘must see and experience’ destination with local tourism operators like Island Gourmet Trails culinary tours and Island Joy Rides Cycle Tours.

Before they renovated and set up the tasting bar, the business partners did their research and sampled plenty of extra virgin olive oils (EVOO) and vinegars themselves. It was important for them to ensure that they fully understood the industry and that they secured the best possible products.

“We were looking to add something that would complement our wine making services,” says Lees, who opened Signature Wines more than 21 years ago. “We learned of the ever-increasing popularity of olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting bars in the USA and some of the larger cities in Canada. We conducted extensive research into the product and the concept. Both of us already knew about the health benefits of olive oil and loved to cook with it. We felt that many others would share our enthusiasm.

“Over a period of three months we traveled to various facilities and researched the products,” Lees adds. “We ultimately decided to work with a family-owned and operated business in Oakland, California, to be our primary supplier and mentors. They have been in the olive oil business since 1914, so they certainly know what they are talking about.”

“The first time I sampled authentic extra virgin olive oil in California I was pleasantly surprised at the taste,” says Whitmore, who became a partner with Lees in Signature Wines in 2003. “The difference was remarkable. Since then, I have used nothing but quality EVOO in my cooking, from salads and pastas to meats and bread. My three teenagers think that I am becoming a better cook, but it’s not me! It’s the EVOO!’”

If you don’t know very much about EVOO, rest assured that Signature staff would be happy to enlighten you. A visit to the tasting bar is an educational experience in itself. Each of the fustis at Signature Oil and Vinegar has a feature sheet that describes the various ingredients in the product and the resultant characteristics of taste and bouquet. The infusion of herbs, fruit or nuts enhances such mouthwatering flavors as Persian lime, roasted sesame, Chipotle or Tuscan herbs.

In addition to the product description, the information card on each fustis also includes a grading number. Using a scale of one to 100, with 100 being the absolute purest in the world, an independent facility in Australia grades the EVOO. This grading is included on the labels. “None of our olive oils rate under 95,” says Whitmore. “None of the standard commercial products will even come close to this.”

While wine, EVOO and balsamic vinegars may be vastly different, the method of sampling them is similar. Whitmore hands me a small plastic cup with a drizzle of EVOO in it, to show me how to properly taste the product.

“A professional taster would use a seamless, cobalt blue glass cup,” she explains, “but we want people to be able to try as many oils and vinegars as they like, so we use these little disposable ones. They meet food safety standards and ensure there is no mixing of flavors when you try additional samples.”

She demonstrates how to form a circle with your thumb and forefinger and place the cup in it. Next, she shows how to cover the cup with the palm of your other hand and gently swirl it around a few times, to warm the oil slightly. You remove your hand and inhale the aroma, before taking a sip through your teeth and slowly swallowing.

Just as Whitmore was astounded the first time she sampled authentic EVOO, I too am taken aback by its delicious flavor and smoothness. It tastes heavenly. I leave that day with a couple of bottles of EVOO and a chocolate balsamic vinegar for myself plus a sampler pack with four empty bottles to give to a friend as a housewarming gift. She will be able to come to the tasting room to experience the products for herself and choose her favorite flavors. What a great idea! Signature will also put together gift baskets and has held several successful fundraisers for local community organizations.

Once you taste and choose your favorite flavors of oil and vinegars at Signature’s tasting bar, you can dispense them into 60-ml, 200-ml or 350-ml refillable bottles provided in-store. If you have your own fancy bottle that you would like to refill, you are also welcome to bring that to the tasting room. Prices range from just $5 to $18, depending on the size of the container.

In addition to learning what authentic EVOO should taste like, I also learned that you may cook with it, too. (I had previously been lead to believe that you should never heat EVOO.) Whitmore explains that the ‘smoke point’ of the fatty acids in poor quality EVOO is low, so you should not cook with it. Their superior quality products, however, can and should be used in all kinds of recipes.

My EVOO and balsamic vinegar tasting experience was amazing, but I still had to ask, ‘What is all the fuss about EVOO and balsamic vinegars? Why open a tasting bar?’
It turns out that this ‘new’ trend is a based on thousands of years of history. The bottom line is: EVOO and balsamic vinegars are good for you, but not all products are created equal. When it comes to the production, sale, storage and use of these products, there is a lot to know.

One of the first things Lees and Whitmore learned during their research and training is that to be classified as high quality EVOO, the product must be made mechanically—on an olive press—without the use of chemicals or excessive heat. And it must also meet strict chemical analysis and organoleptic standards. (Organoleptic refers to quality of taste, color, odor and feel.)

When you are purchasing EVOO, the saying ‘buyer beware’ must be considered. Products in traditional stores may have ‘flat lined’ and already be long past the recommended shelf life when you buy them. Not only will they not taste as good, they will no longer have the same health benefits.

And, speaking of health benefits, EVOO has plenty. According to David L. Katz, MD, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Centre, olive oil is a mixture of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fatty acids. What makes olive oil so good for you is its high percentage of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that helps protect the heart and may even lower cancer risk. The amount of oleic acid varies from 55 per cent to 85 per cent of the total fat content, depending on the type of olives and the site and soil in which they were grown. But oleic acid isn’t the only reason to like olive oil. It also contains heart-healthy flavonoid antioxidants and vitamin E. Extra-virgin olive oils—made from the first pressing of the best olives—contain the highest levels of these beneficial substances.

“When it comes to shelf life and taste, olive oil is the exact opposite of wine,” explains Lees. “While wine improves with age, EVOO deteriorates over time, even if the bottle remains unopened. For this reason, to ensure the best and freshest products are always in stock, our entire inventory will be completely switched twice annually, in accordance with product availability relating to regional harvesting times. In the winter, for example, our supplies will come from the Northern Hemisphere, including California, Italy and Spain. In early summer, we will switch to products from the Southern Hemisphere, including Australia, Argentina and Chile.”

While Lees and Whitmore felt it would have been great to be able to support the ‘buy local’ concept, when it comes to extra virgin olive oil that is virtually impossible. Although we can grow a lot of things here, we can’t grow olives on a commercially viable scale. We simply do not have the right climate. Our winters are too wet and cold. Our summers are not hot enough. So, despite the fact that they couldn’t ‘buy local’ they still made an effort to buy responsibly. All 37 of the prize-winning olive oils and balsamic vinegars in their tasting room are non-GMO, unrefined, unfiltered and organic, with no added chemicals or preservatives—just as olive oils and vinegars were a thousand years ago.

“The olives from our California-based supplier are all hand-picked when they are just slightly under ripe, when the antioxidants in the fruit are at their highest levels,” explains Whitmore. “Then, they are cold pressed at 69 degrees Fahrenheit within two to four hours of being harvested from the tree.”

Consumers should be aware that it is not the bottling date, but rather the date the olives are pressed, that determines the shelf life of the bottled product. To ensure the best taste and maximum nutrient values, EVOO has a 12-month shelf life. For this reason, Signature Oil and Vinegar always recommends that people only purchase an amount of oil that they are sure they will use up within about six months.

Signature’s line of white and dark balsamic vinegar blends imported from Modena, Italy, are also organic. Balsamic vinegar reductions are made from pressed grapes that are fermented in copper pots before they are boiled down (reduced) and then stored in barrels for 12 to 18 years or more. The longer they are left to ferment, the more intense the flavor becomes and the thicker it gets.

Historically, vinegars have been used for thousands of years for their astringent and disinfectant properties, as well as being used as a flavoring and preservative in prepared food. Balsamic vinegar, however, has a wealth of benefits beyond those early uses of vinegar. The name ‘balsamic’ is believed to originate from the Italian word for ‘balm,’ meaning an aromatic resin as well as a soothing and healing agent. It was used to treat everything from headaches to labor pains. Signature Oil and Vinegar, however, only claims that their balsamic vinegars are delicious drizzled on salads, fresh fruit, vegetables, pasta or bread and used as a marinade for poultry, fish and seafood. With balsamic vinegars, you get a flavor punch without the added calories of regular store-bought dressings and marinades.

Balsamic vinegars are considered part of a healthy Mediterranean diet because they contain antioxidants and are low in calories and sugar. However, while they are low on the glycemic index, one tablespoon may contain about 2.5 grams of sugar so if you are diabetic you will need to pay attention to how much you consume.  A single tablespoon serving has only about five-to-15 calories, contains a negligible amount of fat and less than three grams of carbohydrates. Researchers have also discovered that balsamic vinegars can help to reduce hardening of the arteries, aid the absorption of minerals for better bone health, improve insulin sensitivity, as well as stabilize blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

So, if you are looking for something unique and fun to do this summer, grab some friends and head to the bar! Signature Oil and Vinegar Bar that is!

Signature Oil & Vinegar is located at 2060 Guthrie Road, Comox.
To arrange group tastings or for more information call 250-339-0223 or visit www.signaturewinecellars.ca

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