Shopping for olive oil can be daunting, much like choosing a wine. The bottles are often artistic, the labels persuasive, the choices confusing. The only way to know for certain that you like the precious liquid inside is to taste it. Thus, visiting the source for a tasting and a consultation with an expert is the key to buying a product that makes you happy.
Although olive oil tastings are rare compared to wine tastings, they’re now available at a new shop in the village of Fayetteville. Olive on Brooklea recently opened in a beautifully renovated building at 205 Brooklea Drive with a variety of olive oils from Chile, Sicily, Portugal, Spain, Tunisia and Australia.
“There are fantastic olive oils from all over the globe,” raves proprietor Michelle Watts of Syracuse. “There will be other countries in the mix over time. I selected a good variety of mild, medium and robust oils.”
Customers will be encouraged to taste some of the 24 oils in stock drawn from gleaming fustis, stainless steel containers that resemble small milk cans with spigots. Each fusti is labeled with the country of origin and characteristics of the oil it contains, tempting customers to savor a sip.
There are almost as many varieties of balsamic vinegar—a sweet condiment pressed from grapes and aged in wooden kegs—in stock as oils, each also available for tasting and browsing. “It’s the whole package,” Watts says. “People may be looking for different things when they come in here. Some may be really into the health aspect of olive oil and the balsamics, too. Some just want to taste it. They just want to enjoy how delicious it is. We’ve got it all.”
Olive on Brooklea is the first business venture for Watts, who has previously pursued a variety of careers. “I have been a singer, a court reporter, a yoga instructor and a captionist for a deaf, mute person,” she says.
The inspiration for her new venture grew out of visits to other communities, igniting her passion for finding the finest olive oil and balsamic vinegar. “About a year-and-a-half ago, I was brought by my sister-in-law to F. Oliver’s in Canandaigua, which is a store similar to this, and I thought it was a really interesting concept,” she recalls. “I love eating, I love good food. I thought it’s such a great way to enhance flavors. My niece is a chef and she was schooled in Italy. She is the manager of another olive oil store in Saratoga Springs. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this area could really use something like this. I know I love it myself and I wanted it to be available for friends of mine and family and beyond and beyond.”
She found further motivation to pursue the delicious and healthy virtues of olive oil on the pages of a best-selling book. “About six months later I read Tom Mueller’s book, Extra Virginity, and then I was even more intrigued by the whole thing with olive oil.”
The front door of Olive on Brooklea leads to a sitting room with a fireplace and upholstered chairs. “It was intended to be a place where, if somebody wants to sit down and relax and take it in, they can,” Watts explains.
Further back, the main tasting and kitchen area is as much an art gallery as a retail shop, with soft yellow walls, hardwood floors, track lighting and a fully equipped food preparation station. “I had the island built in with the intention of having chefs come in and do demonstrations and cooking classes. Hopefully, there will be other events here, too.”
Two handsome tables, handmade by Watts’ husband Jim Stevens, are centerpieces for the bigger room, making it conducive to gatherings of customers. The mixed hardwood tabletops are mounted on amphorae, enormous ceramic vessels used in ancient times to carry wine and oil. Cooking demonstrations will begin nearby at the free-standing kitchen island, which will be instrumental in sampling sessions with customers.
“I’m getting a freezer so I can give out samples of balsamic over ice cream,” Watts says. “I want to get locally made ice cream. I like to stay local where I can, but if it’s not local, I want it to be special.”
The room that features the kitchen was built onto the building as part of its conversion into Olive on Brooklea. The house-like structure is best known as the home of the Bindle shop for many years and was most recently a home accessories store, the Rustic Pearl. The shop is nestled within a neighborhood bursting with high-end businesses centered around food and arts, including Pascale Restaurant and Pascale Bake House, Deckers Wine and Spirits, Chloe’s Clothing Closet, Japanese restaurant Kyoko, and Paola Kay, a gift shop.
“There are so many unique shops,” says Watts, who grew up in Fayetteville. “It’s a whole street full of beautiful stores. I’m surrounded by beautiful salons. My neighbors here on Brooklea are excited, they’ve offered to help me and some want to stock my products.”
Many of the oils are varietals, pressed from a particular olive, giving them the characteristics of that fruit. Two specialty oils, roasted walnut oil and black truffle oil, are also featured.
“There are pretty much equal amounts of oil and balsamic vinegar,” Watts points out. “There’s dark balsamic and white balsamic. A dark balsamic would be blackberry-ginger or espresso. The white might include Sicilian lemon. There’s a specialty vinegar, Serrano-honey, that has a little bit of a spicy kick along with the sweetness of the honey. It’s fun to layer the oils and the vinegars, pair them up. My favorite trio that I just came up with is the Serrano-honey vinegar with roasted walnut oil and dark chocolate balsamic.”
Olive oil and balsamic vinegar prices are the same for similar sizes: $10.95 for 200 milliliters, $14.95 for 375 milliliters, $25.95 for 750 milliliters. Specialty oils are priced slightly higher. There’s no charge for tasting. “There’s tasting every day,” Watts proclaims. “That’s an integral part of the shop.”
While olive oil and balsamic vinegar are her primary business, Watts is following her culinary instincts in carrying other food products that fit her vision. “I’ve always had an interest in healthy eating and there are some things I’ve never been able to find in this area,” she explains. “I’m bringing some of those items in as well as other gourmet food products. It’s difficult to find whole-grain pastas that are buttery and delicious, so I’ve got a line of Severino, a rustic, whole-grain rigatoni.”
Other hard-to-find gastronomic delights include chocolate bars and smoothie mixes from Not Your Sugar Mamas, a Massachusetts producer of nutritious sweets, locally made nut toffees and sea salt. “I plan to expand into more salts and spices,” Watts says. Customer requests are also welcome.
Original works by local artists will serve to spice up the décor and will also be available for sale to customers. Paintings, baskets by Lauren Bristol of Sparky Town and handmade pottery from local artist Ann Pilcher are among the initial exhibits.
The newly opened shop will celebrate an official grand opening on Nov. 3, from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., following months of hard work and preparation by Watts, aided by her network of boosters. “What really stood out is all the people who supported me,” she marvels. “My husband, my family and friends have been amazing.”
Customers can call 637-2070 with questions or check the website, oliveonbrooklea.com
Watts plans to expand into Internet sales and add product information and even recipes to the site. “I like to find recipes I like and substitute olive oil for the fat in the recipes,” she points out. “You can even use olive oil in baking recipes. I love to use blood orange oil in brownies. It’s really delicious.”Naturally, cooks and foodies of all ages and types are welcome and Watts, whose family includes dogs and cats, isn’t forgetting benefits for pets. “I’m planning to have a table with dog biscuits I made from my oil,” she says. “I’ll accept donations with the money going to the Jamesville food pantry.”