One of the things I love most about going home to South Africa for holidays is the little surprises the country is always ready to spring on me. Like the cloud of ethereal white butterflies that had invaded Johannesburg when I arrived there a couple of summers ago; or the astonishing Irene Dairy on the way to Pretoria; or the ridiculously hip Melrose Arch Hotel (which felt like an Ian Schrager creation at the tip of Africa), or the appearance of whole new chains of eateries since my departure (like the now-ubiquitous Cafe Nescafe coffee shops).
Since my friends know me all too well, every time I roll into town, they make a point of taking me to the latest restaurant or specialist foodie store they’ve discovered. That’s how, about 18 months ago, I ended up at Tapenade, a shop in Johannesburg’s Cresta shopping centre specialising in all things olive-related. I was impressed that such a shop even existed – after all, when I left SA, buying extra virgin olive oil was seen as a somewhat outre choice!! And I have to say there was much to like about the shop: a good selection of both local and imported olive oils, lots of olive pastes, olive jams, olives and loads of funky little serving dishes. But when it came to service, my hopes were dashed. Maybe I came on the wrong day and the girl working there was a casual – I’d like to think so, because clearly somebody involved in the store has a passion for olives. Sadly, my sales assistant was not that somebody!
I asked whether I could taste some of the oils and she directed me to two bottles that happened to be open for tasting that day. What if these weren’t the ones I was looking for – could I taste a specific oil? No. (Maybe I looked like a chancer, out for free tastes of expensive olive oils – who knows.) OK, in that case, can you tell me a little more about the flavours of some of the local oils. If I wanted a mild olive oil, like the ones from Provence, what would you recommend? [look of blind panic flashes across sales assistant’s face]. Erm…. this one won an award… Enough said. So I went for what I knew – Morgenster oil and a little jar of their olive tapenade (spectacular on steamed green beans!). And I left with the feeling that the shop suffers from the same problem as the South African restaurant industry – although the people behind the scenes are passionate and talented, the staff dealing with the public are seldom knowledgeable or trained enough to transmit this to the customer. Still, I hope I struck Tapenade on a bad day and that had I come a wekk earlier or a month later, things might have been different.
So on a more recent visit to Johannesburg, I was a little hesitant to visit a shop with a similar concept – a niche retailer of top quality olive oils and vinegars from around the world. Undeterred, my friends took me to Oil & Vinegar (in Hyde Park shopping centre), and on the surface it is very much the same concept – all things olive related, some interesting vinegars and some funky crockery. But step a little further inside and you will see what sets this store apart: everything is available for tasting!
At the front of the store there was an array of spice mixes made to be blended with olive oil to make dips, all ready mixed and available to taste. (The mustard-coloured NOMU pesto mix in the middle was one of the winners of the Eat In awards last year and is just about the nicest thing that can happen to a breadstick.) The friendly and knowledgeable shop assistant then invited us to come and see the tasting area at the back of the store and there before us lay a veritable smorgasbord of extra virgin olive oils: Italian, French, Spanish, South African, flavoured… you name it. And on the other half of the tasting table were the vinegars, including aged and flavoured vinegars and balsamic vinegars from around the world. We tasted to our hearts’ content and I don’t think we had any question that stumped the sales assistant. I finally got to try some of the award-winning South African oils that have hit the headlines – Morgenster, Waterfall River (currently holder of the Best Extra Virgin Olive Oil trophy in South Africa) and Tokara (sold as The Olive Shed), and discovered that the Rickety Bridge Winery does a fine line of balsamic vinegar, a delightful citrus salad splash, and an absolutely addictive smoked balsamic reduction. We did notice that some of the oils & vinegars were poured straight from the bottle for tasting (see the bottles in the background of the picture) while the rest were in little labeled bowls. How, I asked, could we buy the stuff in the bowls? And that’s when I realised the beautifully backlit ovoid glass containers mounted on the wall behind us were not just for decoration. You taste, select your oil or vinegar and then select a glass bottle from about 4 different sizes available. Each product is priced by volume and you can then buy 200ml, 500ml, or whatever other bottle sizes are available. Clever!
Having made my selection, the bottle was carefully filled, stoppered and sealed before being packed in bubble-wrap for the long trip back to London. Despite the vagaries of the baggage handlers, it arrived unscathed with not a drop spilled! And of course, I could not leave without a little squeezy bottle of the Rickety Bridge smoked balsamic syrup, or the lovely Waterfall River olive oil. Our extended stay at the tasting table and my enthusiastic photographic exploits around the store had by this time attracted the attention of the store’s owner, the charming Richard Johnson. I explained about being a blogger, not some sort of industrial espionage agent, and we had a long chat about food, food blogs and how he came to these sunny African shores. A more passionate and articulate store owner would be hard to find and I also heartily congratulated him on his excellent and knowledgeable staff before departing with my liquid booty.
So next time you find yourself at a loose end in Johannesburg, you could do a lot worse than popping into Oil & Vinegar for half an hour and discovering a whole new world of taste, in the company of people who really know their stuff and are keen to share thier knowledge.
Oil & Vinegar
4th level, Hyde Park Shopping Centre
Cnr. 6th Street & Jan Smuts Ave
Phone: +27 11 325 5052
Fax: +27 11 447 6042