I’m hosting the holiday party for my Seattle book group and have been scratching my head trying to think up something fun. One year we had a tapas theme, but most often we just sign up for an entrée, dessert, or whatever, and then try to bring something scrumptious.
This year, in addition to an assigned dish, we thought it would be fun for each of us to bring a small-sized bottle of a special olive oil we’d like to sample. The deep greens of good olive oil offer beautiful holiday color; when paired with other finger food like fire-roasted red peppers, balsamic vinegar and crusty bread; it's a joyful feast for the eyes as well as the palate. It’s also a rare opportunity to experience many olive oils at once for a straight-on comparison of their characteristics!
Although our local market has a good selection of items, we all generally shop in the same place. To find something unique, I used Google to search “Seattle Mediterranean Specialty Food.” I clicked on the first listing that came up: https://www.theshopagora.com. WOW. I found a long list of unusual olive oils and so much more. In fact, the store wasn’t far, so I decided to visit in person rather than order online.
Located near Woodland Park Zoo at 65th and Phinney, the shop is lovingly arranged, has a homey feel and even smells good. The delightful owners are full of helpful information about not just olive oils, but cheeses, wines, vinegars, and a broad spectrum of other Mediterranean items like pastas, wine and even cookies. Many of their products are uniquely artisan-made, produced in small quantities and imported from all over Italy, Greece, Spain, etc. There were samples available on a small table and I was enthusiastically encouraged to try many things: many were unusual and lots were vegetarian or vegan. The prices were surprising: comparable or better than what I would pay in my own market for something of similar quality.
I explained my oil tasting idea for the potluck. I already knew that just as special wines are for sipping not sauces, special olive oils are too delicious to lose among lots of other ingredients or to compromise with heat or flatten with cold. I’ll make sure the oils are at room temperature and will offer them with small pieces of my homemade crusty bread--probably the easy overnight loaf from the blog. Olive oils have a “nose” and a “finish” just like a good wine, and any happy novice can not only detect, but also appreciate the differences when oils are compared side by side. These oils are so rich and flavorful only a few drops are needed on bread for a great result; use in small quantities means the small bottles goes a very long way.
I admit I went a little crazy with the oils. First, I chose a classy bottle of Italian DOP Tenuta Cocevola(8.45 oz/$12.80) for the party. The oil is made from Coratina olives, hand harvested at a winery in southern Italy. It’s velvet taste is huge, with very low acid content.
I also bought a less expensive Sitia .07 (250 ml/$9) for us to enjoy at home. Sitia is from the Greek island of Crete. It’s the first cold press of Koroneiki olives, is very smooth and has a great fruity flavor.
Finally, I decided to buy a gorgeous bottle of Trampetti oil (500 ml/$34) from Umbria, the “gold coast” of Italy’s olive zone. The intensely aromatic, low acid Maraiolo olives have an amazing flavor. I’ll set out this oil when friends drop by throughout the holidays, as they always seem to do. I bought some great feta and fire-roasted peppers and crackers to keep on hand for just this purpose.
I confess that I nibbled on my purchases all the way home. I can’t wait for the party! For the first time, I will have my dish prepared well ahead of time and with virtually no effort! I am especially grateful to The Shop Agora for a suggestion to include saffron and truffle honeys with nuts and semi-sharp cheeses to accompany the olives. We’ll also draw numbers at the close of the evening, so each of us can choose an oil to take home as a reminder of a wonderful evening with friends. Who knows, I may even have time to clean the house.
P.S. I sneaked over to the store again with two of my book group friends who had expressed an interest in a visit to Shop Agora. We had a great time as one of the owners purposefully guided us through tasting olive oils (from sweet, light & creamy low acids through those with a stronger flavor, more bitter finish and greater acidity), Then, we traveled through the honeys: acacia through chestnut (again sweet and light at the beginning, through those with a more exotic flavors/more bitter finish). There were also the "cheese honeys" (e.g.,sweet & hot, saffron honey, etc.). We learned so much! I am confident now that our oil tasting party will be a success, based on the amazement and fun that just our tiny group had at the store. What's NOT to love about olive oil? Maybe a honey tasting is next!