A good vinegar can taste like liquid candy. Taste the pear- and raspberry-infused balsamics at Vinaigrette, 5006 Xerxes Ave. S., one of three metro oil-and-vinegar stores to open in the past year, and you’ll see. Like Northeast’s Annona Gourmet and newly opened The Olive Grove in Mendota Heights, Vinaigrette owners Sarah and Richard Piepenburg are hoping to teach folks there’s more to oil and vinegar than what gets squirted on your Subway.
A stark yet inviting display of stainless steel urns — 18 oils and five vinegars on a recent visit — greets customers who can sample each one, either by sipping or with bread. Or, in one of Sarah Piepenburg’s discoveries, making a soda with Sprite and a drizzle of raspberry balsamic. A refreshing treat to rival any Italian soda, the drink, with its sweet aftertaste and punch of raspberry tang, puts the Shirley Temple to shame. A 7-year-old would feel pretty sophisticated sipping this at mom and dad’s next holiday party as the adults drink pear-vinegar martinis. Or take a sip of the raspberry or pear balsamics alone and enjoy. It’s like a first-class liquid Jolly Rancher.
“We’re really having fun showing people different kinds of recipes,” she says.
Other creative options include drizzling balsamic vinegar on vanilla ice cream, putting olive oil on popcorn, and making meat marinades, tapenades, cocktails, and salad dressings.
“What it’s fantastic on, and this sounds crazy — Eggo waffles,” Sarah says. “We have a 2-year-old, so Eggos are a staple in our house… butter, syrup, drizzle some vinegar. And, it looks pretty, it’s fancy.”
Or make a mocha with Vinaigrette’s chili oil. It’s warm and chocolatey at first, but upon swallowing that chili oil really hits the back of the throat with a slow, slight burn that erases any mocha aftertaste. It was a surprisingly delicious treat that, on winter’s first really cold day, would hit the spot. A white-chocolate mocha with truffle oil was over-pungent, but that seems to be the beauty of these oils and vinegars — different strokes for different folks.
“The whole reason why we did this is, I don’t know how many times I’ve bought a bottle of wine and was mad because I didn’t really like it,” Sarah says. “But you know what, you get a bottle of wine and you’re gonna get a nice alcohol buzz. You don’t have that same option with an oil or a vinegar.”
Olives grown in the Middle East, Sarah says, have a longer growing season that allows the olives to mature and age better on the vine, resulting in a mellower, creamier taste. Vinaigrette sells oils from Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Greece, and Italy, and tasters going down the line can really get a sense of the spectrum. The oils from the Middle East are indeed creamier, almost buttery with a slight peppery finish on the back of the tongue. The Italian unfiltered olive oil, by comparison, is thick and cloudy with a pungent olive bouquet. The Greek extra-virgin finds the middle ground: slightly creamy, but also with a distinct olive flavor.
Another highlight was orange olive oil mixed with a fig vinegar — it turned simple white dipping bread into gingerbread. The orange oil alone had just the slightest hint of orange zest, but the fig vinegar really brought out its richness. It was fantastic, yet would take seconds to prepare for drop-in guests.
“This isn’t for the high-falutin’ chef,” Sarah says. “It’s for everyday people.”
Customers can choose from two sizes of custom-filled bottles, 375- and 750-milliliter, which can be refilled at a discount. Richard says they were hoping to offer a smaller, tester-sized bottle, to promote home experimentation. Or buy a gift and Vinaigrette will ship it in a hand-made wooden crate.
I had pictured flavored olive oil as what you might find at Target or Crate & Barrel, clearance-rack leaf-shaped bottles stuffed with lemons or peppers. But high-end oils are actually infused at the time of pressing. So a rosemary olive oil is made by pressing rosemary in with the olives, not by soaking herbs in the oil. You will not find Goldschlager-like floaters.
The oil-and-vinegar store concept displays an acute sense of affordable luxury. Like the $4 latte, a $20 bottle of pear-infused balsamic is a treat within reach for gourmets or first-timers. Last-minute gift buyers alone probably could keep these new businesses afloat. Bring a 20-year cask-aged balsamic vinegar or crimini mushroom olive oil and a baguette to a party, and everyone will be thrilled. Orange, fig, pear, garlic, raspberry — ubiquitous all, but their infusion in high-quality oils and vinegars provides a new level of flavor clarity and exploration.
“It takes that memory of your vacation in Italy, but you can get it right here,” Richard says.
Olive oil and balsamic vinegar in Minneapolis
5006 Xerxes Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55410
OWNERS: Sarah and Richard Piepenburg
FACEBOOK: Facebook Page