Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lots of L.O.V.E. in downtown Frederick

    I have reviewed a lot of really interesting and unique shops both on this blog and in newspapers and magazines, but never in my ten years of journalism had I come across an entire type of of shop that I never even knew existed.  That is, never until I discovered Lebherz Oil & Vinegar Emporium (aka L.O.V.E.).  Olive oil and vinegar are great flavor-boosters for things like salad and hummus, but never did I imagine an entire store dedicated to bringing us 48 different varieties on tap!
     According to owner Maggie Lebherz, she also didn't know about such places before her study abroad program in Spain a few years ago.
     “I really got into the cuisine and had fresh olive oil which I had never had before and so when I got back here I looked everywhere and couldn’t find anything like what I had so I did lots of research, found what I had in Spain and went from there," she said. 
     I felt really ignorant at this point because I didn't know that freshness made such a difference when it came to olive oil. I assumed that anything in a non-refrigerated sealed bottle was good for decades, but apparently age has a major negative impact on both the flavor and health benefits of olive oil.
     "“You want to get this fresh olive oil that’s high in polyphenols because that’s where the anti-oxidants are.  You’re going to get health benefits from actually using it," she said.  "If you get any olive oil that’s been sitting in heat and sunlight for a year, the free fatty acids are high, so much higher sometimes that it’s not much better than using butter.”
     She keeps her oil and vinegar in these large steel vats with spigots on the end until the customer decides to buy a bottle.  Keeping it in larger quantities in non-glass containers preserves its' freshness for longer.  Her store is extremely unique in the US doing this with oil imported from Europe - so unique in fact that a restaurant in D.C. buys their oil and vinegar directly from her rather than a provided closer to them.  
     What surprised me even more were the flavor fusions and infusions into the oil and vinegar.  I am familiar with how different flavorings are added to honey, tea and wine, but I had no idea that similar things were done to oil and vinegar.  What I find particularly amazing is that the oils are infused with flavors that you would never normally think of adding to just about anything else.
     My attention was first turned to L.O.V.E. a few days before I went there when friends of mine introduced me to an oil that was fused with mushrooms at the moment the olives were pressed.  It was smooth, rich, flavorful and made an excellent dip for whole wheat bread.  This is certainly not a flavor I could get or would want in honey, tea or wine!
     But what I found even more interesting and enlightening were Maggie's balsamic vinegars.  She said that technically speaking, most of the brands that are marketed as balsamic in grocery stores are just imitation because in order to be true, they must be from Modena, Italy and be aged for at least 12 years, whereas the imitations are usually aged about four years.  
     When it comes to vinegar, she says that proper aging can totally change our usual perception of its character and use.  Would you ever pour vinegar on ice cream or cheese cake?  That sounds totally gross, right?  But as vinegar ages for over a decade, the sugars become more dense and the body becomes much more like a sweet syrup.  I was highly skeptical myself, but I bought a bottle of her strawberry balsamic vinegar and smothered chocolate ice cream in it.  I got the same great flavorful sweetness as I would have from strawberry syrup, but also this really interesting tangy kick that opened up more of the chocolate flavor.  
     But if that still sounds really weird, the truly amazing thing about L.O.V.E. is that you can sample all of the oil and vinegar from the same vats from which the bottles are filled.  And because L.O.V.E. loves their customers, they encourage you to come in and try a small sample of all of their products.  Seriously, just let a tiny dab of the vinegars touch your tongue and you won't wonder why I put it on ice cream.
     I was also thrilled by how well Maggie knows her products.  Each one of them has intricate aspects, but she can describe them perfectly and provide a seemingly endless supply of serving suggestions.
     Even the store space is really well-done and has a comfortable feel.  I thought it was interesting that the color scheme and architecture of the building are highly suggestive of the Mediterranean world from which her products come, while at the same time proclaiming itself a proudly local business by displaying beautiful glass-etchings of Frederick scenes donated by local artist, Yemi.  Add that to the rows of gleaming steel vats full of rich but affordable goodness, and this is most definitely a store that I recommend to my readers.

Lebherz Oil & Vinegar Emporium 
214 N. Market Street 
Frederick, MD 21701

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