The Oil Merchant was started in the Autumn of 1984 when Charles Carey drove to Tuscany to buy his first olive oil. Charles was one of the first people to import single-estate-bottled extra virgin olive oil into the UK. He realised early on, as an ex-farmer, that much like chateau-bottled wine, olive oil of this quality spoke of the land it came from and was made with passion by its producers.
In January 1985, Tuscany was hit but a very severe frost which killed many of the olive trees. Tuscan oil became virtually unobtainable, but at least it gave olive oil a lot of publicity. The first supplier closed their press, never to reopen it again, but others came along, and most of them still are suppliers. Badia a Coltibuono was introduced to us by their wine importer, Marina Colonna by the wine and food writers, Cyril and Elizabeth Ray.
At first, The Oil Merchant was just Charles and his van. Then it was Charles and Sika. A succession of (mostly) lovely van-drivers came, often from New Zealand, to do the delivering, and then we needed help in the office too. Now, Bernard is the van driver and Kate and Issy are in the office.
Slowly, over the years, we have added flavoured oils, wine and balsamic vinegars and Italian sauces to our list. We have worked with many of our suppliers since the near outset of the company, and most of them are small family-run estates and producers, always chosen because of the exceptional quality of their produce.
When deciding whether to add a new supplier by our list we have firstly been influenced by the supplier themselves, secondly by the taste of their product, thirdly by its packaging. Price and margins came fourth and fifth. Over the years, it had become more and more difficult not to move the later considerations of price and margins up the list. Sustainability has come in now too. Our producers are experiencing the effects of global warming; even olive trees need some water, but conversely, irrigation does have some consequence to the flavour profile of oils. And we need to be aware of shipping oil in the high summer when the sun is beating down on a lorry in a queue to board a ferry. We are now regularly talking to our producers about their ecological procedures, and packaging, encouraging them to use lighter, but still elegant, bottles.
Now, olive oil has become an essential part of modern British cooking and people understand that using high-quality, estate-bottled oils is an easy way to bring food to life with a whole range of different flavours and aromas. But with the constant publication of best buy lists, or stories of fraudulent olive oil, it is still sometimes difficult to persuade customers that the best estate bottled oils have the same intrinsic values as chateau bottled wines, one rather important difference being that the oil is probably not finished in one night! We have to remind them that we as the middle-men, middle-women (men are outnumbered here at The Oil Merchant) assess and stand by our producers, and are happy to advise, offer tastings and continually appreciate our valued customers.