A unique store is changing the way Haligonians look at olive oil, one taste at a time.
With barely suppressed excitement, Bill McArthur retreats into the back of his shop and returns with a small brown bottle of olive oil. This, he says, is the freshest bottle of olive oil in North America. It’s a Chilean variety plucked at the peak of flavour, and with its health-giving capabilities, was shuffled quickly to an artisan mill, pressed and bottled in less than four hours, then flown across the globe. Most people who don’t live on an olive grove have never tasted anything like it, but Bill and his wife, Myrna Burlock, have a few dozen precious millilitres. And their first instinct is to share.
On Young Street in the Hydrostone Market, alongside a yarn store and a small bakery, the Liquid Gold Tasting Bar and All Things Olive seems quaint and unassuming. A mural of the Tuscan countryside is painted on one wall; long wooden tables are topped with elegant stainless steel jugs. Riley, the family dog, lounges on the welcome mat. The shop is home base to two of Atlantic Canada’s top purveyors of specialty olive oil—also what the couple refers to as the world’s most controversial fruit juice.
One morning in the shop, Burlock walks friend Tony Quinn through the olive-oil tasting process. It’s something she’s introduced to customers since opening the store two years ago. Burlock pours a tablespoon of a more robust variety into a small plastic cup, warming it in one hand, careful to cap it with the other to help trap the aromas inside. After inhaling the rich, earthy scent deeply, she sips, slurps and swallows, noting the initial green, piney flavours and slowly rising bitterness at the back of the throat. Quinn follows and does the same. Burlock asks him what he thinks.
“It’s really fresh and pure, and it’s very much like—it’s, like, grassy—it’s like eating your lawn with cayenne pepper,” says Quinn.
It’s not unlike the way people sample fine wine or brandy, and Burlock says that’s exactly what they’re aiming for. It’s unconventional, yes, and, frankly, many people have trouble justifying the artisan oils’ bigger price tag, but Burlock says they want to change consumers’ conceptions of olive oil—turning it from an everyday commodity to specialty food worthy of serious attention.
“I knew that if I had an addiction to it, that I wouldn’t be the only one,” she says, gesturing to a row of oils shipped from around the world. “I knew that if I needed it, someone else would. And I was right. Once people know about fresh olive oil—the health benefits, the taste—there’s no going back.”
Burlock and McArthur, along with a growing chorus of scientists, journalists and food distributors, claim the big-name bottles available in grocery stores can contain olive oil that’s been over-processed and carelessly refined, mixed with other oils, is sometimes rancid, and rarely actually “extra virgin.”
“Quite often the labels are just completely wrong,” says Tom Mueller, a writer for The New Yorker who recently authored the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. He’s a well-known advocate and whistleblower in the olive oil scene, and often joins McArthur and Burlock at food festivals and conventions, sharing the occasional olive oil-inspired meal in their Halifax home.
“The only people who will truly mount the kind of force required to change the industry are the consumers who recognize the difference between good and crap,” says McArthur. That’s where Liquid Gold comes in. “Every bit of knowledge that leaves this store is a good thing,” he says.
Burlock, a self-described foodie with an interest in healthy eating, first discovered the olive oil tasting bar phenomenon only a few years ago while living in Arizona. It was at a small shop there that she first tried sipping and sampling specialty extra virgin oils. McArthur, a former racecar driver who openly admits there was a point in his life when he couldn’t tell the difference between good olive oil and good transmission fluid, was Burlock’s first customer.
These days, the couple meets regularly with Rachel Bradley of Veronica Foods, the California-based company that supplies Liquid Gold with its oil, to brush up on their knowledge, or to find the answer to curious customers’ questions. “I think the consumer is becoming savvy,” says Bradley, “and one of the things that the olive oil tasting bars offer is a lot of transparency…which really gets, I think, a lot of consumers excited.”
All of the oils they sell undergo chemical testing before making it to the market. McArthur and Burlock are almost certain they were the first tasting bar to actually post the results in-store—a trend Bradley compares to opening Pandora’s Box, she says; “but I guess only good things are coming out, really.”
When Liquid Gold first opened in September 2010, there were almost no tasting bars in Canada. A few were popping up in California, but the concept was still in the early stages. Since then, though, it’s caught on like wildfire around North America, and business is booming. Veronica Foods alone supplies roughly 300 stores with 250 owners, and Bradley says inquiries keep pouring in. McArthur and Burlock have opened two more stores in Charlottetown and Saint John, with a fourth slated to open in Moncton by the end of the year.
It’s a full-time endeavour, and the two spend the majority of their time on the road, travelling from store to store in their not-quite-olive-green Ford Expedition and answering emails from the passenger seat. But Burlock says she has no plans to slow down anytime soon. “I want everybody to have access to this stuff,” she says. “My belief is the more people that know what fresh is supposed to taste like, the better.”