FOOD / The pure and the extra virgin: The man behind the oil change

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN British shopkeepers and restaurateurs refer to the Oil Merchant, they mean one man: Charles Carey. It is very much to the credit of this softly spoken ex-farmer that we have the variety and quality of olive oils now gracing our shelves.

This is no small feat: a mere two decades ago, olive oil was most commonly found in small medicinal bottles in Boots the Chemist. Before Mr Carey began importing estate-bottled oils in the mid-Eighties, supermarkets carried a small selection of bland commercial Italian or Spanish brands.

Today, all the big supermarkets have extra-virgin own- brands, and large branches of Safeway may carry as many as nine different oils from Spain, Greece and Italy. They, in turn, were led by adventurous retailers such as the Conran Shop and restaurants such as the River Cafe and L'Escargot, all of which were supplied by Mr Carey.

It all began when he brought back 12 cases of oil from a holiday in southern Tuscany some eight years ago. That oil is no longer made - it ended with the frosts of 1985 - but it served him well. In a tasting, it caught the attention of the Chianti producers of Badia a Coltibuono, who asked him to represent their oil. One producer led to another, and his list now comprises 17 different oils.

Moreover, just as he set up business, reports came from the American Heart Foundation and the World Health Organisation praising the Mediterranean diet. A key factor was the use of olive oil, with its Vitamin E, carotene and unsaturated fats. Now, even in recession, olive oil is selling strongly.

The Oil Merchant, 47 Ashchurch Grove, London W12 9BU (081- 740 1335).

(Photograph omitted)