Oil & Vinegar, Johannesburg

by Jeanne on February 9, 2008

in Shopping, South Africa, Travel

20071013_sajoburg_oilvinegaroilse 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!

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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!

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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
Shop LM54
4th level, Hyde Park Shopping Centre
Cnr. 6th Street & Jan Smuts Ave
Johannesburg
South Africa
Phone: +27 11 325 5052
Fax: +27 11 447 6042

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Kalyn February 10, 2008 at 3:01 pm

How fabulous. (And I do hope I will find myself in Johannesburg at least once before I die!)
There’s a nice import store in Salt Lake that has samples of olive oil and balsamic vinegar available for tasting, but not as nicely done as this.

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Kit February 10, 2008 at 6:57 pm

Looks fabulously swish! Our nearest great olive oil is Kloovenberg in Riebeek Kasteel, where they do loads of fabulous olive products and there’s an Olive Boutique in Riebeek as well, with even more different things. You can taste everything there too, so we go there for a treat and stock up of green olives in lime dressing and sun dried olive paste Mmmmm!

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Ash February 10, 2008 at 7:11 pm

Oil & Vinegar started in the Netherlands and they’re all over now – there is even one in Chelmsford! The one in my town closed down, but there is one in Amsterdam. I love it. Next time try the raspberry vinegar – awesome!

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Samuel February 11, 2008 at 3:00 am

There is one here in Bellevue, WA – I will have to check it out when I have a chance.

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Christina February 11, 2008 at 1:33 pm

There’s one just up the road from me in Windsor, and you’re right – it’s brilliant. :-)

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Suganya February 11, 2008 at 6:51 pm

If ever I come to Johannesburg, I wouldn’t miss this for the world. I am amazed at the customer-friendly service that they provide.

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african vanielje February 11, 2008 at 10:46 pm

I guess living in Cape Town is like living in SOmerset. A great selection of local produce just not much on the level of London or Joburg when it comes to slick and comprehensive. Can’t complain though when I get to live it vicariously through you, and were I to walk into the shope I’d panic at the vast choice.

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katsa February 20, 2008 at 11:13 pm

i was about to remark that oil and vinegar are a dutch company when i saw in the comments that ash beat me to it! i was in the rotterdam store last weekend and had to show serious restraint – especially given those new silly rules about liquids in hand baggage, and the vagaries of redit card limits!
there was briefly an oil and vinegar in dublin, but the prices were huge, the range was not, and the staff were less than expert..to say nothing of the customers who in the majority probably thought it too ridiculous to pay 6 or 7 euros for a grinder of flavoured salt they knew for a fact could be bought in pick ‘n pay (or even the irish grocer dunnes) for considerably less!
see also oilvinegar.com where i see they recently opened a store in dubai – after all dubai has one of everything, why not these?!
i went around Tapenade in Cresta this past christmas holiday in jo’burg and I too was less than impressed. I wish I’d known to make the detour against the dead traffic lights to hyde park!
thanks for the post.

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