Oil You Need to Know

John Roumanis is the owner of Mediterrano, my favorite Ann Arbor restaurant. John also produces my favorite olive oil.

Roumanis left the farms of his native Greece in 1970 with just $200, and a wealth of faith in the American Dream. It’s a belief we share.  We’re also devoted to this state and proud that our businesses are family owned and based here in Michigan.

And so we’re collaborating. John’s sublime olive oil, with its Mediterrano label, is newly available at my markets. Although I carry many varieties from around the world, this modestly priced, delicious oil is a perfect Hiller’s fit. I’m mad about the stuff. In fact, at Mediterrano, one of the first things I and most patrons do is reach for the glass cruet, drizzle up a saucer, and swab at the goodness with a knob of fresh bread. I could make a meal of that.

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That’s why John’s venturing out. And deservedly so, since he’s long been in the vanguard of fresh, healthful fare, with dishes representing the south of France and Greece, and from Spain to north Africa. His was one of the first area restaurants to offer olive oil for bread instead of butter, which did raise some eyebrows. “We used to keep a little butter on hand though, for the few who demanded it,” he acknowledged with a chuckle. At length, customers begin to inquire about the peppery, fruity, fragrant oil with the rare, forest green color. “People from all over, especially those from Italy, Greece and Spain, would eat here then start looking for me,” he said. “They knew it was good, they knew what they were tasting, and they wanted to know where it came from.”

John’s oil is produced near Sparta, not far from his home village of Metamorphosis, where he once labored alongside his dad, growing olives, almonds, figs and wheat. Although olive oil from Spain and Italy are better known in this country, Greece devotes most of its cultivated land to olive growing, don’t you know, and offers more varieties of olives than any other country. Per capita, Greece consumes the most oil, too.

The moment at which olives are harvested influences the oil’s taste, as does the soil the trees grow on. For his “liquid gold,” as Homer called it, John mixes new-harvest ripe olives with some not fully ripe.  So, choosing a good olive oil can be similar to selecting a wine, really. John likens his full-bodied oil to a robust cabernet.

What’s more, authentic extra virgin olive oil must contain no more than 0.8 percent acidity, not that most labels on the market have that info. The fact that John’s olive oil registers 0.5 percent – and says so on the bottle – is a particular point of pride (the higher the acidity, the shorter the oil’s shelf life).

And, you can trust the purity of Mediterrano oil, typically used for dressings, marinades and dipping. The sad fact is that a lot of olive oil is adulterated; you never know if it’s mixed with vegetable oil, or what. John travels to Greece at least a couple of times a year, and sees the process first hand.

A few years ago he started selling the olive oil at Mediterrano. Some folks come in just for that. That or the red and white Greek wines he sells with the Mediterrano label, simply named after nymphs and goddesses.

No longer must John tout the health benefits of olive oil consumption. If you’re not a believer, talk to his dad, the former olive farmer who turns 100 this year, or his mom, a spirited 85. For the record, the oil is very rich in monounsaturated fats, most notably oleic acid, which reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, and thus heart attacks and strokes. It’s also good for cholesterol, blood sugar levels and blood pressure.

Like me, John Roumanis is focused and driven, a self-described Type A. Yet he has an easy smile and warm mien. He’s got three kids too…. “I’m really glad that my kids grew up in Michigan and Ann Arbor,” he said. We’re alike that way, too.

I’m proud to sell Meditterano olive oil at Hiller’s.



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