For Marianne Prey, life without olives is the pits. “I think olives are delicious but it wasn’t a lifelong dream to open an olive store,” explains Prey. She discovered olives at the age of four when her Mom was pregnant with her sister and craved salty snacks. “I remember sitting on the couch with my Mom, watching soaps and eating green olives right out of a jar with her. I loved it. It’s one of my earliest recollections.”
Prey’s Clayton, Missouri store, Extra Virgin, An Olive Ovation, is the culmination of a life spent experiencing and appreciating the taste, benefits and versatility of this small ovoid fruit. “Our name says it all: ‘an Olive Ovation.’ At the core of everything we do is the celebration of the olive,” she says. Even its initials, EVOO, are shorthand for “extra virgin olive oil,” which is the culinary equivalent of liquid gold to its legions of fans.
That the St. Louis metropolitan area had no olive oil store was than an oversight to Prey. It just didn’t make sense. “St. Louis has a well-educated population that’s well-traveled, with a significant segment of foodies and a nice array of chefs and restaurants,” she explains. Nowhere could you find a store with someone who was dedicated to talking about olives and olive oil in great depth. And when it comes to olives, there’s so much to say.
Traditionally, the first pressing of hand-picked olives, makes the best olive oil. The olives are stone ground into a paste and then cold-pressed. This produces the purest, most intense and flavorful oil. Hand-harvesting the olives adds significantly to the cost, but ensures that the press is free of bad fruit, twigs or leaves, anything that might taint the oil.
Modern production methods include spinning the olive paste in a stainless steel centrifuge to separate the oil from the water and olive solids, and percolation, or “sinolea”, where rows of metal plates are dipped into the paste and the oil sticks and is skimmed off. Ultimately, though, the quality of the oil depends on the olives that it comes from.
Prey’s current favorite is a sinolea-produced oil from Spain called Les Costes. “It’s made from arbequina olives, an olive native to Catalonia from the Northern region of Spain, near Barcelona, from 200-year-old trees.” This non-pressed, unfiltered oil is very delicate and is loaded with a fruitiness and intensity of flavor that she says “literally bursts in your mouth.”
With a B.S. from M.I.T., and an M.D. from the University of Illinois, opening Extra Virgin was about the farthest thing from Prey’s mind. At the time, she was the medical director of the nation’s largest reference laboratory, and had spent eighteen years as a pathologist, peering through microscopes at blood, fluid and tissue samples. One day she realized that “I didn’t want to still be doing this when I was sixty-five. I wanted to try something new while I still had the mental and physical capacity to do it.” She had always loved to cook, loved olives and olive oil, and appreciated their health benefits. Her kids were grown, her husband supportive, so she traded the lab for an olive cart.
Hippocrates, the father of the oath of Western medicine that bears his name and reads “first, do no harm,” called olive oil "the great healer” as it was thought to bestow strength. Historians theorize that this is the reason ancient Greek athletes rubbed their bodies with it, and why it was put into medicines and cosmetics as it was also believed to confer youth. In more recent years, it’s been ballyhooed equally by scientists, nutritionists and foodies for the same qualities.
Olives for Prey clearly transcend the trendiness of martinis, the hype of designer oils, and today’s obsession with monounsaturated fats. Olives and olive oil, she says, “have sustained us for thousands of years. The oil that people sample in my store everyday is the same thing that people ate in biblical times. That’s astounding. There aren’t too many things sold in stores that are unchanged throughout the millennia.”
When Prey thought about opening Extra Virgin two years ago, her retail experience was limited. “I was a very good shopper,” she jokes. But nearly two decades in the lab business taught her that customer service is the same no matter what the business is. “It's all about providing quality goods or services at fair prices and exceeding the customer's expectations every step of the way,” the doctor advises.
Prey began her education by enrolling in "Sensory Evaluation of Olive Oil” at the University of California, Davis. There she studied the anatomy of taste, food pairing, agriculture, methods for pressing, and a historical perspective of the olive industry. She wanted know if she had the sensory aptitude to taste the differences between oils, before taking on the role of expert. “After two days I thought, ‘I can do this.’ Olive oil is like wine, it’s a lifetime of learning.”
And teaching. “Extra Virgin”, the store, is infused with Prey’s “interactive taste before you buy” philosophy. She encourages customers to taste, learn, and luxuriate in her selected olive oils before buying. She also carries olives, vinegars, books, pottery, fine soaps, linens and imported pasta, and her focus, as from her lab days is on quality and customer service. “If I have delighted each customer in just a small way I feel that I’ve done my job.”