I remember reading in one of Peter Mayle’s many books about Provence that, whether apocryphal or simply an antiquated custom, old French men were known to drink a shot glass of olive oil each morning, presumably to line their guts before another day of cheese and wine.
Though I have never had the stomach (pun unctuously intended) to imbibe olive oil straight-up, were I to give it a go, I bet that Joe Clearo and Linda Fuller would have the perfect potable.
In 2015, the longtime friends turned a shared interest into a joint venture, becoming the co-founders and co-owners of La Terra Natural Oils, whose Bull Street shop is just a few blocks south of Forsyth Park.
"We were best friends before we moved to Savannah," Fuller said in a telephone interview a week ago. "Both of us were trying to figure out what to do next, and (the store) just happened."
She explained that Clearo was the one to suggest opening an olive oil store, around the end of 2014, but admitted that neither considered that product seriously at first.
When the idea took hold, though, excitement led to more ideas and additional research and a "big old light bulb went off."
Though they initially looked at buying into a franchise, Fuller said that they are glad that she and Clearo did not go that route; having their own label has meant going to the farms and meeting the farmers who "love their crops" and "are passionate about every aspect" of the oil-making process.
"When you buy from someone who has a passion about their product, you can always tell," Fuller said. "I hope it’s the same for our customers."
Five years in, the business partners "have made a lot of changes [and] a lot of friends [and] gained a lot of knowledge."
"We went in thinking just oil and vinegar," said Fuller of La Terra’s retail focus, but it did not take long before she and Clearo had the desire and saw the need to bring in a rotating array of other small-batch local goods.
"What’s a good small business that’s really appealing to locals and to tourists if you don’t have a diverse group of local yummy things?" she asked rhetorically, before explaining that, not long after opening, they began reaching out to regional producers of sauces and soups and tapenades to sell those comestibles in their shop alongside the oils.
Striking California Gold in Savannah
According to Fuller, about 99% of La Terra’s oils come from a small farm in the Sacramento Valley, and the shop also features Terra Dolce extra virgin olive oil, made in nearby Lyons.
"People love the local oil," she said. "A fantastic quality oil. It has the consistency of melted butter, so wonderful.
"We try to get it right after they press it. The earlier you can get an olive oil once it’s been pressed the higher the quality and higher [the] nutrients."
In the research months after the business plan began to take shape, Clearo and Fuller researched and then visited several family-run farms, and the gold medal products of Sutter Buttes (California) caught their attention.
While many might think only of Italy, Greece, and Spain when it comes to the fruity oil that is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats, California has been a major player in the extra virgin olive oil game for decades now.
"It’s just a fantastic bunch of people," Fuller said of the personal connection she and Clearo have developed with the farm owned by Arek Kazmierczak and Alka Kumar, which also produces the jams, mustards, and spreads sold at La Terra.
In the shop are nearly 20 signature oils, all for sampling and purchase in 60, 200, and 375 milliliter bottles, ranging from $7 to $21.
La Terra’s 20 balsamic vinegars — as all true balsamic vinegars should — hail from Modena, Italy, and are priced the same as the oils for the same volume increments.
"If you’re going for bread-dipping," Fuller suggested, every bit the olive oil sommelier, "you’ll want to go with a Tuscan Herb, a rosemary, basil, oregano blend. None of the flavors is overbearing, but they work together to create just an incredible herbal sense.
"For people that like a little bit of heat but something that the whole crowd can deal with, we have a Citrus Habanero," she added. "Drizzle that on some shrimp, just the last thirty seconds that it’s cooking, and you will have an amazing taste and aroma. It’s beautiful on seafood."
La Terra also has a very popular Butter-flavored extra virgin olive oil for people who are vegan or are allergic to dairy.
"It’s such a personal taste," Fuller said about the array of choices, noting that La Terra has an olive oil for every preference and palate, ranging from Blood Orange to Porcini Mushroom and Sage to White Truffle.
Extra virgin olive oil delivered
"We have gone through tremendous changes since COVID hit," Fuller said. "We closed for a week, trying to figure it out, and in that week’s time, we had people calling saying, ‘I really need this. I really need that.’"
Not wanting to open the shop in such uncertain circumstances, Clearo and Fuller mobilized La Terra: they took orders and even payment over the phone and then drove deliveries all around town themselves to drop off at customers’ doors.
As well as an in-store pick-up option, online purchases for the last two months have offered free home delivery; the same is available by simply calling the shop and ordering over the phone.
On the fly, they worked out a method to organize orders by general area so that one trip, say to Tybee or to Skidaway Island, can be made each week.
"Whatever area needs it, we’ll just do it all at once. It has exploded," said Fuller of this door-to-door service. "It has been wonderful.
"We like to see people face-to-face. We really miss our customers, but right now, the priority is comfort," she added.
"It’s worked. It’s helped us keep rolling," Fuller said.
Shipping online orders was part and parcel of La Terra’s business model from day one, and Fuller happily reported that that end of the trade has "increased tremendously as well" during these last five months.
With a laugh, she said that Clearo "gets very excited about doing the orders."
"I’m like, ‘You’re the king. Just pack ‘em and ship ‘em.’"
La Terra often has a stand at some area farmer’s markets, too, Tybee and Talahi Islands among others, which is an outreach to folks who might not drive down to the shop itself as often as Clearo and Fuller can bring the oil to them.
In addition to purveying oils and vinegars and savory sundries, La Terra’s shop is also an art gallery where Clearo and Fuller regularly show local artist's work and offer it for sale. She hopes that brighter days world-health-wise will welcome a return of their First Friday Open House with "lots of good food and drinks" for friends and customers, both locals and tourists alike.
"Our goal is pretty much to help local artists get their work out there," Fuller said, and pre-COVID-19, La Terra’s walls were adorned with a new artist’s work monthly.
Also planned for our collective return to normalcy, Chef Nights will bring talented area chefs into the shop, perhaps four times a year, for evenings of learning how to use the La Terra products in amazing dishes - over a glass of wine or two, of course.