Olive oil is something pretty much everyone has in their kitchen. I go through a good bit myself, but I'm often stymied by the stuff—in particular, why my homemade oil-based salad dressings always taste like a brown paper bag versus the rich dressings described in the cookbook recipes I have so clearly followed.

"That's probably because you're not actually using real olive oil," says Michael Aranda, owner of Santa Fe Olive Oil & Balsamic Co. (116 Don Gaspar Ave.,
992-1601). "Most olive oil sold in the US comes from mega-producers and is
low-quality to begin with, then cut with canola or seed oil."

Aranda, a lifelong Santa Fean, learned the truth about olive oil while in
Europe studying international hotel and restaurant management.

"I'd always had a passion for food and realized the stuff Americans think is
extra-virgin olive oil actually isn't," he explains. "When we initially looked at buying this business, I realized I could use my contacts in the wine and olive oil businesses in Europe to bring the highest quality oils and vinegars to Santa Fe. We work directly with family growers who hand harvest olives and producers of only the highest quality."

The greener fruit, Aranda says, provides more beneficial anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy qualities in the oil.

"When we get the oil," he says, "we send samples to a lab at the [University of
California at] Davis, so we have the stats on acids and fats and can break down how healthy the oil is."

Quality is the main focus for Santa Fe Olive Oil & Balsamic Co.'s vinegars.

"Our vinegar producer is in Modena, Italy, and he takes good red wine grapes and oxidizes them to turn them into vinegar," Aranda tells SFR. "Most
producers make vinegar from bad grapes just to get rid of it. But just like you can't make good wine with bad grapes, you also can't make good vinegar with bad grapes."

It's a major difference, and Aranda says the easiest way to tell is in the aroma.

"With good vinegar, you will smell fine wine—prune, oak, floral notes. We import different barrels to age vinegar in, and you can try them from those barrels, just to show people what happens if you put balsamic in cherry versus oak; like with wine, you can taste the difference," he says. "Go home and try what you have and tell me if it tastes like bad wine or you can taste the fruit notes."

In the downtown business' tasting room, visitors are welcome to sample any of the dozens of oils and vinegars offered. Each is crafted and bottled at the
company's production facility off Siler Road. And though there are many to add to your own kitchen, Aranda says the most popular sellers are, of course, chile oils.

"We make the red chile and green chile oils with New Mexico chile," he says. "Another popular oil is a Tuscan herb we make infused with basil, rosemary and garlic. It's fantastic for marinating and also on, say, grilled asparagus, or as a salad dressing."

Among local restaurants such as the Coyote Café, Market Steer Steakhouse, Milad Persian Bistro and others, the organic bio piqual—the choice of olive oil "purists," says Aranda—is popular with its aromas of dandelion greens, cut grass and tomato vines. Overall, however, tasters are encouraged to try combinations. One popular option is the blood orange olive oil ($10-$45) with fig balsamic ($10-$24). I took these home and made a salad dressing, adding nothing but a bit of salt. The resulting dressing was sweet and rich, but well-balanced in acidity thanks to the citrus and olive; my "paper bag" conundrum was solved.

"All of our products are free to sample and we love educating customers about what we do," Aranda tells SFR. "On weekends we have locally grown fruits and/or veggies to sample products with, and we encourage people to pop in and try something like an organic tomato with our basil extra-virgin olive oil. People can also order online and have gifts shipped for holidays or other occasions."

If you just want to experiment with combinations at home, Santa Fe Olive Oil & Balsamic Co. offers smaller, 60 millileter bottles of all of their oils and/or vinegars. Storage, meanwhile, is as important as the fruit used in the oil and balsamic creation.

"The basic rule is to avoid the three factors that ruin it: heat, time and oxygen. So think about all three and try to eliminate them," Aranda cautions. "I always tell people, number one, if your olive oil is on your stove take it off, because it will get warm there."

If you live in a typical Santa Fe home without air conditioning, he recommends "a cool, dark space with the container fully closed. Wine coolers work really well."

"We're on the forefront of a really cool food movement, where people are being more conscious about what they choose to consume," Aranda adds in parting. "You have no idea until you actually start using them, Once you do, you won't be going back to the jugs from Costco."