The gluten free fad may still be alive and well, but a new food revolution could be stirring from a small store at Second and Lavaca streets, and it involves olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Jeff Conarko, founder and owner of Con’ Olio Oils and Vinegars, was so blown away by the olive oils and balsamic vinegars he tasted while vacationing in Europe, he felt the need to bring them back to America.
“I worked for Dell for 14 years and decided I wanted to start this business after tasting the oil and vinegar,” Conarko said. “We would smuggle back bottles in our luggage because we just couldn’t get the same thing here, no matter what price we paid.”
Conarko said the original inspiration for an oil and vinegar tasting bar came from a shop he visited in Paris. While other locations similar to Con’ Olio exist in the United States, Conarko’s shop is the only one of its kind in Austin. He imports all of his oils and vinegars from various countries in Europe in order to ensure their quality.
If you visit one of Conarko’s two Con’ Olio locations, you will see three rows of shiny metal barrels filled with various flavors of infused olive oil, extra virgin olive oil and white and red balsamic vinegars. Each barrel is outfitted with a small card that provides information on the liquid and offers suggestions for usage. One particular piece of information on the cards is impossible to find within a grocery store and proves to be especially useful.
“Crushed date is the most important thing about olive oil, and it’s also the thing that they’re hiding and no one wants to show you in America,” Conarko said.
According to Conarko and the Better Health Channel, true extra virgin olive oil contains precious antioxidants called polyphenols. These can help lower bad cholesterol, help with inflammation and increase good cholesterol.
Other studies show that olive oil may have tumor-fighting properties and can help prevent breast, colon, lung, ovarian and skin cancer development. But this is only true if the oil is less than a year old, and that’s almost impossible to find in a typical grocery store.
“The FDA doesn’t control olive oil because it’s a sterile substance,” Conarko said. “You can’t grow bacteria in it, so it will never spoil and make people sick. It will go rancid and it will taste like crap, but it will never make people sick so they don’t worry about it.”
This means the common practice of buying olive oil from the grocery store and allowing it to collect dust in the back of a pantry shelf is a bad habit many Americans should break.
“We’ve just become accustomed to what rancid olive oil tastes like in this country,” Conarko said. “It’s like orange juice. You wouldn’t drink that a year after the oranges were picked, would you?”
Contrary to olive oil, Conarko said that balsamic vinegar is similar to wine in that it gets better with age. In fact, in order to be labeled as traditional, the vinegar must be at least 12-years-old and be produced by one of 55 families in the Modena region of Italy.
According to Conarko, balsamic vinegar starts out very acidic but becomes thicker and sweeter as it ages in wooden barrels. Non-traditional balsamic vinegars achieve the sweetness by adding caramel, and the sugars and calories that come with it. The benefits of the balsamic vinegar are only prevalent when it carries the traditional label.
“I know diabetes patients that manage diabetes by using the balsamic vinegar because it lowers glycemic index, which will keep their insulin levels low,” Conarko said. “It also speeds up your metabolism, so it’s great for weight loss.”
Alexander and Monica Moreno from Monterrey, Mexico stopped by Con’ Olio while walking through downtown and made sure to purchase a few samples from Conarko before heading home to Mexico.
“It’s one of those things I’ve kind of seen on cooking shows and television but not really paid much attention to or believed in,” Alexander Moreno said. “The difference between this and other oil and vinegar is just really significant.”
If there isn’t a fountain of youth nearby, Conarko’s miraculous olive oils and balsamic vinegars may serve as a notable substitute.
Printed on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 as: Local imports flavors of Italy