After shopping the Lippitt park farmer’s market on Wednesday afternoon, I stopped by the recently opened Olive del Mondo at 815 Hope Street. My friend Seth sent me word about it at the beginning of the week and I was excited to check it out. As I’ve mentioned in many other posts, I have been getting my oils and vinegars from the Alternative Food Co-op in Wakefield, RI. I travel down there every 1.5 to 2 months to restock. The co-op products are very satisfactory—especially for cooking, but when it comes to dressing oil and vinegar, I have longed for a bulk source of specialty products. Growing up, my Italian father was always so excited to bring home dark green earthy olive oils and thick sweet balsamic vinegars to feed us. He’d open a bottle or can, drizzle it’s contents over a tomato or soak it into a piece of bread and present it to me with ebullience saying, “you’ve got to try this!” It spoiled me.
As I stepped into Olive del Mondo, a huge smile came over my face. Glinting stainless canisters or “fustis” of oils and vinegars line the walls and island displays. Printed cards carefully describe the contents of each. I immediately noticed the emply dark glass bottles with cork stoppers that fill the lower shelves, and thought, “this looks promising”. I approached the young woman at the counter and introduced myself. I expressed my excitement and asked about the bottling system. Jennifer (that’s her name) explained to me that customers buy a small or large glass bottle to fill with the oil or vinegar of their choosing and then when they’ve finished with the product, they can bring the bottle back to the store to be washed and reused. The shop is equipped with a washing and drying system (bottle trees) in back. Fantastic! Plastic sampling cups and utensils are provided for customers to try different flavors, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem to use one’s own sampling vessel brought from home.
Jennifer and her husband Salvatore—who came in while we were talking, opened the business together. Both are graduates of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and their sensibilities show in the details of the store layout. We chatted about waste reduction projects. They told me it was a bit of a struggle to convince the Department of Health that the reusable bottle system could be sanitary, but eventually they were able to get it approved. I asked about the containers their products are delivered to the store in and Salvatore told me that they do come in plastic jugs (this is standard in shipping because of plastic’s lightweight characteristic—more weight equals more money and fuel). One jug fills one entire fusti. The plastic shipping container is certainly an imperfection in the bulk goods shopping system. It’s something that I discussed with Rosemary, the manager of Alternative Food Co-op, when I toured the store in January. She told me that paper and burlap are still being used to distribute many dry bulk goods, but today most liquid bulk products are shipped in plastic.
It’s important to acknowledge that buying imported food products is not a Zero Waste practice. As implicated by the shop’s name, the products Olive del Mondo carries are shipped here from around the world. While writing this post I realized that I did not know where the olive oil I buy in bulk at the co-op comes from. So I called them up and spoke to Liz, who is the store buyer and she told me that currently the olive oil they are purchasing in bulk is indeed imported and that it’s an issue they are both aware of and concerned about. So far they have not been able to find a distributor of bulk domestic olive oil.
When it comes to shopping for liquid bulk goods, variety is not always easy to come by… but there’s no shortage of it at Olive del Mondo. I really enjoyed speaking with Jennifer and Salvatore and I so admire the work they’ve done to set up the reusable bottle system. Currently, oil plays an important role in my diet, as it’s one of my main sources of fat. And while vinegar is a source of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium, the real reason I continue to consume it is that I simply love it. I passed on sampling in the shop because I didn’t have a vessel on me, but I did purchase a small bottle of 18-year aged balsamic and a reusable pour cap (the standard stop caps cannot be returned for reuse). As it turns out, it’s the most delicious balsamic vinegar I’ve ever tasted. I will savor every last drop.