In terms of sheer impact, few gastronomic experiences rival letting a few drops of flavored balsamic vinegar slide across your palate. The result can be a fig-tinted sledgehammer, a pomegranate wrecking ball, a blueberry uppercut; vivid, slashing, barn-burning flavor that demands bread, or tonic, or vegetables to act as a catcher’s mitt for the vinegar’s flavor fastball.
High-end olive oil is an entirely different prospect; perhaps you pick up the taste of butter, or fruit, or even freshly cut grass. It’s soft and sensual, shockingly good tasted by itself but ideal served on an artisan baguette.
Wander through Annona Gourmet in Northeast Minneapolis and you are confronted by a veritable garden of flavor, blooming in the guise of spigoted metal canisters. Each is labeled with an option for the curious sampler: Hojiblanca (an olive oil with a peppery finish), or sweet peach balsamic, or 25-year-old cask-aged Sherry Reserva.
Minneapolis native Jean Rarick founded the store in early January, after a career selling paper. “I got kind of burnt out,” she says. “I was doing a lot of traveling, covering all 50 states; it kind of fries you.” An olive oil and balsamic vinegar store near Green Bay, Wisconsin, proved to be the inspiration for Annona Gourmet. “I thought… oh, I could do that!” Rarick says.
Doing that, as it turns out, means running what is effectively an olive oil bar, a non-stop tasting of oils and vinegars that can be as convivial as a cocktail party or as intense as a coffee cupping with a master roaster. Customers have the opportunity to try before they buy, an critical step when a 375ml bottle of oil or vinegar starts at around $13. In terms of flavor, a little goes a long way — a bottle is commitment, a new arrow in the quiver of the home chef.
Annona is the only business of its exact type operating in the Twin Cities, giving it a unique niche, and a unique challenge: educating its future customer base. “Most people don’t understand what really fresh olive oil tastes like, and that there are so many different kinds. A lot of what you get in a grocery store has been bottled for a long time, and been sitting in a warehouse even before it hits the shelves. You can’t just bottle something and have it be good forever.”
Oils from Annona, like most of their brethren, are versatile; they can be used to pop popcorn, for sauces, for sauteing, for baking or even as a butter substitute for baking. “It depends on your palate,” Rarick says. “I have one that’s very light that’s great for cakes and pastries. It depends on your personal preferences; do you like apple notes, or more nutty flavors?”
Naturally, there’s some magic to be made by bringing the right oil together with a cleverly chosen balsamic. “We discovered the black cherry vinegar and chipotle olive oil are quite lovely together,” Rarick says. “The chipotle has got that smoky flavor — it doesn’t hit you right away. I’m not a big fan of hot, but sweet and hot always seem to go nice together. Because of the sweet of the black cherry, it works very well with the chipotle — it’s great for a salad, for example, or a marinade. It’d go great with duck.”
Another killer app: Balsamic vinegar on ice cream. It’s not an experience to be mocked. “It so fabulous,” Rarick says. “I have black cherry at home, and I put it on cinnamon ice cream — I almost passed out, it was so good.”
Combine pear balsamic and lemon olive oil, and you get, somewhat mysteriously, lemon meringue pie. “That was just — standing around one day, ‘let’s try this,’ that’s kind of where some of this is coming from,” Rarick says.
A month plus of running Annona has already given Rarick some rich food for thought; the palate reels at the idea of what her library of flavor combinations will look like in the years to come.
Heavy Table’s Blueberry Vodka Tonic
Start with a shot of vodka.
Splash a bit of blueberry balsamic vinegar into the glass, then pour, with a heavy hand, some simple syrup* — probably about half a teaspoon. Stir.
Add 4-6 small ice cubes and about a shot’s worth of tonic. You’re in business.
You know you’ve got the right balsamic/syrup ratio when the simple syrup amplifies the blueberry flavor and de-emphasizes the vinegar bite.
*One good version is a 50/50 mix of sugar and water heated until the sugar dissolves, and then cooled, bottled and refrigerated. Great for mint juleps, among other things.