Cheryl Harper offers a sample cup of infused olive oil with flavored balsamic vinegar to a visitor at her Birmingham specialty shop, Simply Infused.
“This is Tuscan herb with wild-raspberry white balsamic,” she says, reacting gleefully to the customer’s reaction after he takes a sip. “It’s very fragrant, complex. You get rosemary, garlic, and oregano from the oil, and a little tart and sweet from the balsamic.”
Next on the taste tour is a dark balsamic spiked with black mission fig. On top is olive-wood-smoke olive oil.
“This goes with roasted vegetables, chicken, pork,” Harper says, as she hands over another sipping cup. “Now try this oil fused with Baklouti green chile peppers from Tunisia. The heat builds from the back of the throat.”
Harper loves to share her passion for these ancient elixirs. “My job is to inspire,” she says. “When people come in, we play with flavors.”
Freshly harvested and pressed, the olive oils at Simply Infused carry the top certification, ultra-premium grade, Harper says. Oils from countries north of the equator—including Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal—are available there from January through June. Olive oil season from producers in the southern hemisphere is July through December.
Simply Infused carries some two dozen single-varietal olive oils. A similar number of flavored oils include standards like basil and garlic, along with more exotic seasonings like wild mushroom and sage, harissa chili pepper, and Persian lime.
It also sells some 20 flavored white balsamic vinegars—including Cara-Cara orange vanilla, honey ginger, and lemongrass mint—and more than a dozen dark balsamic vinegars.
These vinegars, produced in the Modena region of Italy, are matured in a succession of barrels made from different woods. As time goes by in the barrel, the balsamic gets sweeter, thicker, and more complex.
Simply Infused’s white balsamics are aged 12 years. Most of the darks stay in the barrel for either 12 years or 18 years; Molto Denissimo lingers for 20–23 years.
Harper says some customers buy the oils and vinegars for their health benefits—citing lower blood pressure and anti-inflammatory properties in the oil, and improved digestive health and lower blood sugar from the vinegar.
But most are cooks looking for something different or wanting to recreate flavors from an international trip.
Harper ticks off recipe ideas as she describes her products. Tuscan Herb olive oil, her No. 1 seller, goes with fish, chicken, steak, or pork, she says. Combining it with Cascadian Wild Raspberry white balsamic vinegar provides the perfect boost to cauliflower or roasted Brussel sprouts.
Harper became a convert during a vacation stop in 2012 at a specialty store in western North Carolina. After spending a couple of hours trying different products, she and her daughter started planning their own shop during the ride home.
“When you get into this it’s a totally different world,” she says. “That’s why that tasting experience is so fun for a lot of people. The first time you try it you say, ‘Wow.’ It hits you on parts of your palate you didn’t know had tastebuds.”
Harper opened Simply Infused eight years ago in the Mt Laurel community of north Shelby County, relocating in late 2016 to its current location in The Mercantile at the Brook Highland shopping center on U.S. 280.
More than a dozen stores around north and central Alabama also carry Simply Infused products, including Brickyard Meats in Cullman and N&N Meat in Jasper, Local Source market in Birmingham’s southside, and Studio 23 in Florence.
Harper also delivers online orders directly to homes, regular weekday-morning routes that span from Trussville to Tuscaloosa, and from Gardendale to Sylacauga.
“I just want to make sure people have an easy time getting fresh extra-virgin olive oil and aged balsamics,” she says. “I love helping people find things they get excited about.”