Just a half-hour’s drive south of the Twin Cities, the town of Northfield is an idyllic host for both day-trippers and the 20,000 or so residents who make it a more permanent experience.
Gathered along the Cannon River, it presents the quintessential Midwestern hamlet: pubs and restaurants with beguiling names like “Froggy Bottoms Pub” (whose imagination can resist a name like that?) and a culture infused by the long-standing tradition of two liberal arts colleges and tidy streets featuring specialty and artisan shops, like Northfield Olive Oils and Vinegars, the brainchild of Joe and Sherry Morgan.
When I first visited the Morgans’ shop, I found an airy storeroom painted in shades of green and yellow, where neat rows of dark bottles and silver vessels line the walls and circle high-top tables. An amateur extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) aficionado who assumed all EVOO products were more or less the same, I soon realized two things: first, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about oil and vinegars; and second, there was something intriguing about the Morgans and their shop.
I left, in possession of several bottles in a brown paper bag bearing their logo and a date set to interview the couple. To step inside the peripheral of their story and the aura of enthusiasm that surrounded them.
A few weeks later, on a pale-shaded June morning, I met them outside their shop where we agreed to have our interview; they unlocked the store and ushered me in where their welcoming demeanor fills the space. Joe put on some coffee—Sherry and I chatted easily at a table. Quickly, the pleasantries gathered momentum, becoming a train of narratives as they explained how they exchanged cubicles for a specialty shop that has expanded across state lines.
From “Hobby” To Occupation
Sherry’s love for cooking led her to experiment with different oils and vinegars, and over time, their family realized that the health and flavor benefits of good olive oil made all the difference. Even before they understood the chemistry behind good olive oil, the Morgans began using products they discovered at an out-of-state delicatessen. They also noticed the flavor of their food was elevated by this change.
For years, starting their own business was a vague dream for a distant retirement; Sherry and Joe both held professional jobs and still had children at home. One day late in 2012, everything changed when it occurred to them that a small business could coexist nicely with their careers. They decided to open a shop featuring the same fused and infused olive oils lining the counters in their kitchen; oils they had been using for years. Vinegars imported from Italy joined premium oils in the line-up. After leasing and remodeling a space overlooking Northfield’s picturesque Bridge Square, they opened their doors on December 22nd following a whirlwind month and a half of remodeling and preparation.
There was fleeting doubt when, twenty minutes into opening day, they hadn’t served a single customer. Sherry laughs as she remembers: “Joe looks at me and says, ‘Oh no, we’re in trouble!’”
Their doubt was short-lived; customers soon filed in, crowding around the wall-to-wall rows of bright silver vessels known as “fustis,” gloating over samples before leaving with their own bottles. At the end of the day, the Morgans looked at each other with both triumph and relief: they had made their monthly lease payment on that first day alone. “We were really shocked”—especially when the next several days unfolded in the same manner.
Initially, they intended only to be open on weekends. For days, customers continued to arrive in droves; within weeks, Sherry left her professional job to keep the shop open full time. Within months, Joe joined her. They have since opened two more stores: one in Red Wing, Minnesota and another in Pass Christian, Mississippi, a small coastal village about forty-five minutes from New Orleans, which is managed by their daughter.
They soon realized their new role extended beyond that of a shopkeeper; they were developing into key players within a multi-faceted industry undergoing significant change. With other specialty shop owners, the Morgans engage with their distributor and several small international olive growers at summits where maintaining quality and purity of product takes center stage. “Instead of being a store that sells a lot of vinegars, we are now a small player in this world of changing the olive oil industry.”
For Joe and Sherry, part of this change is nurtured by teaching their customers what exactly they are getting with their products—and, in the same respect, what they are not getting. “The idea is that if you can change peoples’ ideas of what a quality product is, then the people will demand quality of the [olive oil] industry.”
What Defines Quality Olive Oil?
For olive oil, it is about freshness and purity.
“We bring [oils] in from both hemispheres,” Joe explains. “There’s a fall harvest—November—where we see a lot of oils from Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, California.” The southern hemisphere offers a spring harvest: “The fresher oils right now [June] are coming from Peru, Chile, Australia.”
On cards beside each fusti, they display all the information regarding each oil. The chemistry, the harvest, the country, the crush date—all provided to enhance their customers’ knowledge.
They also give private tastings where they encourage tasters to compare typical, name-brand olive oils to their own: an opportunity to clear away any ubiquitous, yet inaccurate ideas about olive oils.
The comparison begins with the label: a bottle of a common grocery-store olive oil bearing codes for Spain and Chile. Two countries representing two hemispheres and, therefore, two different harvest seasons. For Joe, this is particularly concerning because “it means this company is mixing oils that are in different periods of, I would say, their decay.” He also points out that the crush date of the olives is not listed on most brand-name oils which should be a red flag for consumers. At Northfield Olive Oils and Vinegars, the oils are derived from a single harvest with the crush date in full sight so consumers know exactly what is being offered.
“What we have learned here is that it’s not so important where your oil has come from—whether it comes from Spain or California. What is really important is freshness; we don’t want anything that’s been refined or adulterated [diluted with low-quality oils].”
The Morgans demonstrate another way to discern an oil’s freshness. A plastic sample cup containing their “Oro Bailen” Picual extra virgin olive oil is covered with one hand and rotated to create friction with the other hand. Essentially, the oil is being slightly heated. “You’re sealing it with your hand to keep in the aromatics,” Sherry explains. A moment later, the aromatics are released and breathed in. The Picual exudes a fruitiness with elements of earthiness and the outdoors. “Like fresh cut grass or something right out of the garden.”
A key quality, Joe points out, considering that oil judged by a panel of experts is instantly disqualified if it does not possess the “right out of your garden” aromatics.
Finally, the oil is tasted. “The key to [good oil] is it’s very smooth,” Joe says. The flavor is then analyzed; the Picual is determined to possess a slight bitterness, just as it should. “This is a medium intensity oil—we have different intensity levels. Our mild oils have almost no bitterness; our robust oils will almost be like a hoppy beer.”
The Morgan’s encourage people to test other oils, in the same manner, to see if the qualifying characteristics manifest: “garden-like” aromatics, smoothness and intensity. When subject to this test, a poor quality oil invariably produces an unpleasant, chemical odor and almost no flavor at all.
Olive oil is only one arm of the Morgan’s expertise; from their space along a wall, balsamic vinegars and condimentos stand proud as the spotlight of the narrative sweeps their way.
As in the case of olive oil, there are vinegars that are the real deal—and then there are the rest.
What marks the differentiating characteristics?
Sherry explains. “A lot of the vinegars bought in a regular store have sugar and caramel coloring added to them. Ours do not have any sugar added to them, and the color comes from the caramelization of the actual grape must. Also, they are made using the Solera method”—a traditional, Italian practice in which vinegars are aged for up to eighteen years in old, wooden barrels.
For the Morgans, selling vinegar that not only tastes good but provides health benefits to their customers is paramount; because of this, their vinegars are all PGI certified. For vinegar to achieve this designation, it is subject to a panel of judges who determine if it passes a strict accreditation process. Establishing the origin of the vinegar is part of this. “While our oils come from different places, our vinegars come only from Modena.” To be PGI certified, the “balsamics must come from either Modena or Reggio Emilia, Italy.”
Which, according to Joe, is not a designation most grocery-brand vinegars possess although many tout, “Product of Modena, Italy” on their labels. After joining the industry, the Morgans learned that, in many cases, certain vinegars “are not actually from Modena, Italy;” instead, the phrase is simply part of the product’s name. Many people are led to believe these “of Modena” products are real balsamics. “And yet it’s junk,” Joe says. “There’s sugar added, caramel color; it’s not a real balsamic vinegar—“
“And it’s not made with the Solera method,” Sherry adds.
In the Morgans’ shop, their certified light and dark vinegars represent a miscellany of flavors and elements. From bold and spirited, like Honey-Ginger and Lemongrass Mint, to fresh and summery, such as Strawberry or Tangerine. There also are rich, decadent vinegars such as Espresso, Dark Chocolate, and Black Mission Fig. (Check out this Grilled Fig, Prosciutto and Goat Cheese Naan Flatbread where I use the Morgans’ Black Mission Fig Balsamic Vinegar as a flavorful topping). Across the room, their oil counterparts await an invitation to dance in the small sample cups; swirled together, they create a mélange of possibilities for vinaigrettes, marinades, and glazes.
But sometimes, vinegar dances alone, thank you very much. Dashed in a glass of water for a fresh spritzer. Drizzled atop vanilla bean ice-cream. Mixed with a gin or tequila cocktail. Swallowed to treat acid reflux.
Treating acid with acid?
It sounds counterintuitive and yet, “The acid that’s in the balsamic vinegar counteracts with the negative acid in your body and balances it out.” Sherry explains how vinegar aids the digestive system and acts as an appetite suppressant, helping many of their customers achieve their weight-loss goals. “If you have a salad with a vinaigrette, you tend not to eat as much and so it is a great way to control weight.”
There also are health-impacting benefits in quality olive oil, and the Morgans’ knowledge has garnered the attention of healthcare officials conducting research on cancer and the healing properties in olive oil. “[They] come in and realize that we’re listing the polyphenol values, we’re listing the oleic acid levels—all the touch points they are looking for—and that we can explain them.”
Experiencing Northfield Olive Oils and Vinegars
The Morgans make it easy for people to invite their products into their kitchens. The best advice is simply to visit one of their three locations where their offerings continuously change. There are always new harvests coming in; new flavors and new experiences. With the bottle-recycling program, repeat customers may bring in their empty bottles for a refill and receive one dollar off the purchase. The couple also maintains a website where customers across the country can order and have their favorite products shipped to their doorstep.
We finished the interview just in time for the shop to open. Already, people wait outside, peering through the glass windows; Joe strides across the room throws open the door and welcomes them. In a matter of minutes, the room blossoms with conversation and activity as Sherry and Joe engage one customer after another.
We said our goodbyes, and I left with a prodigious sense of having been inspired by the culinary and health-giving possibilities I carry in yet another Northfield Olive Oils and Vinegar bag. I’m also inspired by their story, which reminds us that, if we dare, the passions in life we foster can absolutely become our life’s work.
And isn’t that what we all dream of?