Chasing the crush and aging the balsamic on Main StreetFIORE specializes in artisan olive oils and vinegars
Rockland — Listening to the passion in Pat O'Brien's voice as he describes the process of aging balsamic vinegar in attic barrels in Modena, Italy, one almost feels guilty about putting the stuff on a common sandwich or salad.
However, O'Brien, who owns FIORE on Main Street along with his wife, Nancy, encourages you to do just that.
"It's by no means for the high-end, elite, gourmet cook," he said. "It's for every man. I'm a griller and that's as culinarily challenged as anybody. I use all of these. I use balsamics in salads and marinades. I use the extra virgin olive oil for everything from marinades to bread dipping to toss with pasta, all sorts of things."
FIORE, which means "blossoming flower" in Italian, is also the name of a store on Rockland's Main Street near the Ferry Terminal that sells almost nothing but fine, imported olive oils and vinegars. The fact that our small coastal community now supports such a business is perhaps a natural evolution of the "foodie" culture that started in the city's restaurant scene. Many area restaurants are now customers of FIORE, according to O'Brien.
Entering the store, one finds rows and rows of shining stainless steel, certified food grade, seamless fustis, each filled with a different flavor or variation of extra virgin olive oil or balsamic vinegar. The fustis are manufactured in Italy. Any visitor to the store is invited to walk around with little paper cups, tasting the products that are labeled as coming from faraway places — Chile, Spain, Portugal, California and Australia.
"What we've found is once folks come in, we introduce them to the concept, show them around, they're able to taste before they buy," O'Brien said. "Nothing here is pre-bottled. When you come in and you taste it and you tell us you want to buy a bottle of that, we fill the bottle right from the fusti."
The lemon-flavored oil works well to marinade salmon or chicken, he points out. The specialty sesame seed oil is great for stir-fry.
What's probably most interesting about the business is the process of creating these products. Let's start with the balsamic vinegars:
"We work with an importer that has strong connections over 90 years with the traditional balsamic producers in Modena, Italy," O'Brien explains.
He holds a small bottle of dark liquid labeled "Extravecchio Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale," and regulated by the Consortium di Balsamico in Modena. In understanding that this is the end result of as much as 25 years of effort, one realizes this is the treasure, the pride of Modena.
He points to a row of three barrels, each somewhat smaller than the next. These represent the barrels in the attics of Modena where the cooked off syrup of grapes is stored to ferment and oxidize in the heat of summer and cool and "sleep" in the winter for year upon year. The barrels are not sealed. Only a patch of cloth covers the opening and over time the juices evaporate down and concentrate adding flavor and complexity. As they do so, they are transferred to smaller and smaller barrels.
One key, however, is that the barrels themselves are never truly emptied. No real balsamic vinegar ever starts from scratch. The remnant of vinegar in the bottoms of the barrel mixes with the new grape syrup to begin the process again.
"We've got 12-year aged, 18-year aged, over 25-year aged traditional balsamics as well as white balsamics," he said. "And many of those are flavored with dried fruit or fruit juices, natural flavors that sort of thing."
An amount drawn off the smallest barrel in February is sent to the consortium, which takes very seriously the job of certifying only the best. Now, in places like Rockland, Maine, serious chefs have elevated aged balsamic vinegar to "rock star" status.
While the goal with the vinegar is to let it age, the extra virgin olive oil is a race, according to O'Brien.
With the best oil, the fruit is crushed within 24 hours of being harvested to capture and maintain the many nutrients. The health benefits of fine olive oils are tremendous and multiple. Some of the oils he sells come from olives crushed within 90 minutes of being harvested.
"The thing that is unique about us is we do something called 'chasing the crush' which allows the oil to come to us within eight weeks of our harvest," he said. "This time of year, just this week we launched the southern hemisphere harvest from Chile and Australia. Most all of the time the oil is never more than six months away from the harvest, so it's the freshest olive oil you can buy."
Nancy and Pat O'Brien started the business in 2009 with their first store in Bar Harbor and opened the Rockland business in May 2010. The store is open year-round and the business is expanding with FIORE tasting bars on Vinalhaven, North Haven and Bangor. The Rockland store has six employees.
They have a home in Bass Harbor on Mt. Desert Island and an apartment in Rockport.
The two come from out of state — Pat originally from Massachusetts and Nancy from New Jersey — and worked for years for a large, global spirits, wine and beer company. Pat was in the printing and packaging end of the business and Nancy was a commercialization director.
Their jobs took them all over the world, including trips to Italy where they made the connections with an importer needed to launch this business.
They moved to Maine around 2006 and got married here in 2008.
"I'm a sea kayaker and I always wanted to come here," O'Brien explained. "Drove up the coast and fell in love with the area."
"I think the thing that strikes us about this area, especially Rockland, is the collaboration that people have for each other," he said of the business community. "Everybody works together. It's amazing for restaurants; there's not a real strong competitive battle. We've been blessed with a lot of good collaboration and good word of mouth."
For more information, visit FIOREoliveoils.com.
News Editor Daniel Dunkle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @DanDunkle.