Founded three and one-half years ago by Donna and Tom Harper, Blue Ridge Olive Oil (hereinafter “BROO”) occupies the downstairs space at 511 E Main Street. (Previous BOTW, Fightingtown Tavern, occupies the upstairs.) The Harpers came to Blue Ridge from Florida, via Atlanta. Having seen olive oil specialty stores when traveling, and the lack of one in our town, it seemed a natural niche to fill.
The store itself is beautiful, from the stone façade on the exterior, to the gleaming vats of tasty liquids that are EVERYWHERE inside. There is no lack of selection here.
The place was hopping when I arrived and remained so during the hour it took me to become properly educated on the products, which gave me lots of time to sample the wares.
Staffers Marv Barton and Austin Bryson were on hand, and between filling orders for the crowds, they were kind enough to share their vast knowledge with me.
A little background: Marv is a native of Ohio, and ended up in Blue Ridge, also via Atlanta. The quiet life and peaceful beauty of our area was far more attractive to him than city life. He’s been here for 27 years now. Friends of Donna and Tom, he started helping out one day a week at the store, and now works 5 days a week doing a little bit of everything. He’s delightful, and I found out we share a love of horses: his farm in Blairsville houses his Arabians, to whom he is fiercely devoted.
Austin is a Blue Ridge native, and had returned to the area to help his grandparents after a desire for a change in scenery took him to San Diego, California. While he still feels the pull of the Pacific, making occasional trips back, Blue Ridge is his home, and BROO is where you’ll find him working. He’s been with the company since September, 2015, landing a job as a “walk on.” He’s young, helpful, and engaging. The Harpers can be proud to have both Marv and Austin on the team; speaking with them was great fun.
Now, to the goods! The vast array of oils and vinegars to be sampled can be overwhelming, so let’s go through the basics.
There’s a natural flow around the store and an order to things. You’ll notice that each stainless vat has sample cups beside it, and a small bottle of the product on the counter below. Here’s how it goes:
Never, but never draw your sample from the vat. Only the employees use the vats. Draw your samples from the sample bottle on the counter, and throw your little cup into the waste containers that are generously situated throughout the store.
Use a fresh sample cup for each tasting.
There is bread at the front of the store if you prefer to have something “host” the oil. Me? I just sucked it down. I’m a purist.
The dark green labels on the first few vats indicate that these are pure extra virgin olive oils with no added infusion. These are the oils with medicinal benefits. (Infusion changes the chemistry of the oil and so the flavored oils are not appropriate to market for medicinal purposes. More on that in a moment.)
The light green labels are flavor-infused olive oils, and wow, are there a lot of choices, including some that are particularly spicy; these are labeled in red. It would behoove you to read the red labels carefully, and take the warnings to heart. When they say “hot,” they mean HOT. I’m just saying. (Read that as, “This reporter did not heed the label and nearly coughed up a lung after chugging a sample.”)
Now, on to the vinegar vats. While the oils come from all over the world, the vinegars are from Modena, Italy. A gold label on the vat indicates a white balsamic, and the purple labels are the dark balsamic.
If your head starts spinning from the sheer variety, consult the suggested pairings list posted in large format on the wall. This is helpful.
Interspersed with these core items are specialty pastas, rubs, truffle oil (so good!) and specialty salts, which you may sample. It’s a cornucopia of kitchen happiness in there!
Remembering the dark green labels and the medicinal value, here is where the chemist in me became really interested. Olive oil contains polyphenols, a class of compounds with tremendous antioxidant properties: i.e. they prevent oxygen from ruining things, namely the quality and flavor of the oil, but also cells in your body.
On the labels of these pure oils are a variety of numbers resulting from lab testing. While my scientist nerd mind went all gung ho reading the charts, graphs, and data Marv showed me, what suffices for most people is the Hi-Poly count. Oils with Hi-Poly counts above 300 demonstrate measureable health benefits, including: decreased arterial plaque and cholesterol; antioxidant effects (antioxidants eliminate or reduce free radicals in the body; free radicals are unstable compounds with an unpaired valence electron, and in the process of seeking out a mate for that unpaired electron by stealing it from another molecule, initiate a cascade of free radical production that can ultimately cause tissue damage); reduced rates of many forms of cancer; decreased risk of stroke, depression and inflammation; and lowered blood pressure. (The scientific data backing this up is well published, available online from reputable sites, and far too voluminous to include here.)
The factors that affect the polyphenol content of the oil are harvest time (half ripe = good), water during ripening (less = more), climate, soil quality, etc. In addition, the more processing the oil goes through, the lower the polyphenol count, which is why you always want, as Rachel Ray says, “EVOO”, or extra virgin olive oil.
Whew! That was a lot of science in a little bit of time, wasn’t it? Here’s the low down. Two tablespoons daily of one of the EVOOs that Blue Ridge Olive Oil Company offers is good for you. Really good. If you need a first hand account, stop on in when Scott is working and let him tell you his story. About 4 years ago he needed a heart transplant, and fast. The heart that was available wasn’t ideal in terms of the amount of plaque build up it had and the cholesterol levels of the donor, but when you need a heart, and that’s the one that is available, you take it.
Heart transplant patients go on statins, which are drugs that lower fat/cholesterol in the blood. Scott was having a hard time adjusting to the statins, as many patients do. He started taking 2 tablespoons of the highest value Hi-Poly olive oil daily, and in two years had cleared the donor heart of plaque.
You should note that the higher the polyphenol count in the oil, the more “robust” it is (translation: bitter), but BROO offers such a wonderful variety that you will be able to find an oil that is palatable to your taste buds and beneficial to your health.
Okay. The science lesson is over and you should (a) definitely check out all the images and captions for more fun information, and (b) head on down to the Blue Ridge Olive Oil Company for tasting, excellent service, fun conversation and fabulous products. Plan to spend some time…there’s a lot to see and experience!
Invited to a friend's new cabin for dinner? You can put together a first class gift package here that will delight anyone (and let's face it, if they're not delighted, you don't want them as a friend anyway... ;)
We are so happy to have this deliciously perfect store in our town. I’d not been in for a while and it just keeps getting better all the time! (Look for the same concept applied to tea, coming soon right next-door!!)
Check out their website at blueridgeoliveoil.com, or give them a call at 706.946.6457. Hours are M-Th 10:00-5:30, F-S 10:00-7:00 and Sun 11:00-5:30.