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Dining: Oil in the family

Live and let olive: Mercedes, John and Julie Burkavage, and some of the colorful olive oils and vinegars they sell in their Summerlin store.
Photography Christopher Smith

Live and let olive: Mercedes, John and Julie Burkavage, and some of the colorful olive oils and vinegars they sell in their Summerlin store.

How did Big Horn Olive Oil start? Love at first taste — and then a slippery slope from there

Mercedes Burkavage covers the bottom of the tiny cup with a drizzle of liquid gold. Like a patient foodie mentor, she demonstrates for yet another uninitiated consumer in her Summerlin store how to savor and distinguish subtle tastes as only the sophisticated can.

Her tutorials are full of phrases such as “dominant notes” and words like “musty” and “fusty.” But she’s not talking about wine. It’s extra-virgin olive oil. And if you consider the supermarket stuff in your pantry olive oil, think again.

“Americans are being duped,” she says. “The products they’re buying in big bottles and cardboard boxes are often rancid. But people buy these inferior products with their pretty labels because we’ve never been taught what quality olive oil should taste like.”

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Who is she to know? Well, Burkavage might be the Las Vegas Valley’s queen of olive oil. Her Big Horn Olive Oil Company is riding a wave of popularity among health aficionados and Food Channel groupies whose discriminating palates are weary of mass-produced olive oils for meat-basting, salads and marinades. Burkavage and her husband, John, a radio industry veteran, opened the first of two Big Horn Olive Oil stores ( in Reno in 2012 and began business in Las Vegas two years later.

The couple’s philosophy is simple: Don’t just sell olive oil. Teach customers how to distinguish for themselves which of the infinitely varied flavors — such as cilantro-roasted onion, Milanese Gremolata and blood-orange — works for their tastes and recipes. And their health: New studies show that extra-virgin olive oil, which contains powerful antioxidants called polyphenols, can reduce the chances for women over 60 to develop breast cancer, if added to a diet already rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts and whole grains.

But consumers, Burkavage says, are being sold a low-quality bill of goods, often compliments of companies in Italy and elsewhere selling products that replace real olive oil with cheaper safflower and canola oil, and often with artificial coloring added. She says she recently watched a “60 Minutes” report on how Italian organized crime has even seeped into the olive oil industry in that country, cutting quality for profit. The result: Consumers lose.

‘What did we know?’

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John Burkavage cites himself as a perfect example of once being olive oil-ignorant: He grew up in Philadelphia in a family of Lithuanian and Swiss descent. “We used low-quality vegetable oil,” he said. “What did we know?”

Mercedes has an olive oil rule-of-thumb: “If you can’t taste if before you buy it, why buy it?”

At their store on north Rampart Boulevard, the couple conducts elaborate tasting sessions, matching olive oils with corresponding balsamic vinegars also sold on site — products aged for up to 18 years, without additives, in flavors such as apple, coconut, espresso and vanilla. To settle on the perfect marriage of oil and vinegar, they ask each customer about their taste preferences and how and what they cook.

On a recent day, John instructs a high-end olive-oil virgin how to sample the goods — in this case, three varieties that are now in season: a mild Hojiblanca and a Koroneiki, both from Australia, before downing a cup of robust Coratina olive oil from Chile, which finishes with a spicy kick.

The regimen is like wine tasting. “Cup the oil in your hands to get it warm,” he instructs, grasping the small plastic cup. “Now take a smell. Really put your nose in there.”

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Then he demonstrates the proper way to ingest the oil: rolling it onto the back of his tongue, absorbing the green, fruity flavor: “Feel the viscosity? Good olive oil coats the tongue. The bad stuff tastes like water and grease.”

He pauses, then sucks the sides of his mouth, making a slurping sound. The couple has earned olive-oil-tasting certifications from the Italian government and say group tastings feature all kind of strange sounds, a bit like a Tourette’s conference.

Finally, John breathes out through his nose, so his olfactory senses can capture the varied bitterness in each oil.

Ahhh, his eyes say. Translation: simple perfection.


Olive you, olive me

Worldwide, more than 800 varieties of olives are grown, though not all are used to make oil. As with grapes, olive quality depends on weather and soil quality; so one year’s bounty can be another year’s bust. Spain is the largest olive producer, but Italy both imports and exports the most — buying most of its olives from other countries.

The Burkavages have taken years to learn their trade. Mercedes grew up in Aruba in a home where she learned to love food as a child. “My first doll house had a kitchen in it,” she recalls. “I used a votive candle as a stove.”

She met John as a college freshman in Boca Raton, Fla. in 1973 and eventually held various jobs – mostly in the food industry. When daughters Julie and Audrey began making soap as a hobby, including some with olive oil, Mercedes had an idea: The girls would make the soap, and mom would sell it.

While living in Greenville, S.C., Mercedes made her next move as a budding entrepreneur: Julie brought her into the Palmetto Olive Oil Company, where Mercedes cut another deal: She used their olives; the firm sold her family’s soap.

She recalls her first reaction to savoring high-quality olive oil: “Wow!”

“It was this new wonderful titillating experience for my taste buds,” she says.

In 2011, the couple moved to Reno, but Mercedes couldn’t find quality olive oil anywhere in northern Nevada. Then one evening, she and her husband were sitting outside their favorite wine store when John noticed a business space for rent.

They peered inside: It was perfect for a high-end olive oil store. “At our age, life is not a dress rehearsal,” John told his wife. “Let’s do this.”

Soon they had two Reno-area shops. Then one of Mercedes’ suppliers suggested she expand to Las Vegas. “Do you know how far it is from Reno to Vegas?” Mercedes asked. But she did it. In August, 2014, the couple opened its Summerlin store, which daughter Julie now manages while Mercedes helps introduce Southern Nevadans to the taste she calls “the Disneyland of the tongue.”

But there are challenges. Like the couple who walked in the other day looking for bacon-flavored olive oil.

Mercedes admits she’s never heard of it. She suggests alternatives, like using bacon fat. The couple turns and leaves. It may seem like a missed opportunity or lost sale, but the Queen of Olive Oil is satisfied knowing they just got an eye-opening glimpse of olive oil’s Disneyland.