Ligonier olive oil shop offers education, gourmet tasting experience

Allison Lunko knew her specialty olive oil shop was a winner when someone asked, “How does it feel to have found something that people around here did not even realize they needed?”

The Johnstown native opened Laurel Highlands Olive Oil at 140 E. Main St., Ligonier, in June 2021. Almost a year in, she said, things are going well.

Lunko sources her oils from groves around the world, in places as far-flung as Italy and Australia. From mild to robust, flavored and unflavored, more than 20 oil options are available. In addition, there are black truffle, sesame and walnut oils.

Lunko also stocks a large array of flavored balsamic vinegars, along with specialty food items, olive-wood home and kitchen decor, soy candles and CBD oil health and beauty products that she makes herself.

Part of her mission is to educate people on the joy of cooking with quality oils and vinegars and their healthy attributes.

At the front of the store is a table containing several vats of single-origin, extra-virgin, unflavored olive oils. “Single-origin” means the olives in the oil come from one specific grove.

Lunko likes to give first-time visitors a quick tasting session.

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Shirley McMarlin | Tribune Review

Shoppers can taste an array of olive oils, from light to robust, at Laurel Highlands Olive Oil in Ligonier.

“I start off with the milds and work up to the medium and robust in flavor, very similar to a wine-tasting situation,” she said. “The mildest one from Australia is so mild you could bake with it – you could even substitute it for the oil in brownies.

“The mediums are more peppery and pungent,” she said. “I love to tell folks that the peppery, pungency they’re tasting is actually the antioxidants. The more robust it is, the healthier it is for you. ”

In the back of the retail space is what Lunko calls “the playroom.” Shelves lining the walls contain vats of flavored oils and balsamic vinegars, and there’s more to learn here.

“The base oil in the flavored oils changes every six months, depending on the season of crush. Every six months, either the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Hemisphere is crushing olives, ”she said.“ In the first part of the year you get the Southern Hemisphere crop, and the second half of the year, you get the Northern Hemisphere crop.

“So you’re always getting the freshest oil possible.”

Fused and infused

The oils come in large vats from Veronica Foods in Oakland, Calif., And Lunko bottles them in various sizes, including sample sizes sold in mix-and-match four-packs. Some of the flavored oils are fused, others are infused.

In a fused oil, the olives and the fruit, herbs or vegetables that flavor it are crushed at the same time. An oil that is infused has a flavor extract added to it.

The vinegars all come from Italy and range from 12 to 25 years old.

“It’s a lot of fun to mix and match them for salad dressings and marinades for meat,” Lunko said. “You can marinate meat in a vinegar and finish it with an oil. You can roast veggies in one of the oils and, about a minute before they’re finished, pull them out and drizzle a little bit of balsamic vinegar on them.

“It really kicks it up a notch, changes the whole flavor profile and makes boring weeknight veggies into something way more exciting.”

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Shirley McMarlin | Tribune Review

Laurel Highlands Olive Oil in Ligonier carries a variety of flavored balsamic vinegars; specialty food, beauty and CBD oil products; and olive wood home decor items, in addition to a large array of oils.

Lunko’s favorite preparation is to halve Brussels sprouts, toss them in butter oil and then roast.

“Right before they’re done roasting, I pull them out and drizzle the Vermont maple balsamic on them and sprinkle on some bacon bits,” she said. “It turns Brussels sprouts into the best thing ever.”

After graduating from Johnstown High School in 1995, Lunko earned a degree in horticultural science from Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

She stayed on after graduation, consulting in the hemp-growing industry.

“I helped start Colorado’s first certified hemp farm,” she said.

She was inspired to open an olive oil shop by a similar establishment in Fort Collins, but decided a Pennsylvania location was a better fit for her.

Tasty and fun

“I wanted something that was tasty and fun. I wanted an experience and not just a gift shop, someplace to learn and create, ”she said.“ I decided I could never have made my dream happen out there, because it would have been cost-prohibitive for me to have done this in Colorado. ”

Being closer to family after 25 years out west also played into the decision.

She educated herself on olive oils through “a lot of reading, experimenting and tasting. My mom and I also went to a lot of olive oil shops all over the country in our travels over the years. ”

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Shirley McMarlin | Tribune Review

Laurel Highlands Olive Oil opened in June 2021 at 140 E. Main St., Ligonier.

Lunko said the shop space had great bones, but needed a total makeover. Before she took over, it had been a jewelry store and, prior to that, a Thomas Kinkade art gallery that reflected the painter’s woodland aesthetic.

“All of the walls had indoor-outdoor, dark-green carpet on them,” she said. “The ceiling was dark green, the carpet was dark green and so were the walls. It was supposed to look like you were walking into a dark forest – and it did the trick. ”

Renovations included the removal of interior walls, white paint, open shelving and light gray flooring.

Prices for flavored oils and balsamic vinegars start at $ 12.50 for a 200-milliliter bottle. The single-origin, extra-virgin oils start at $ 15.50 for the same amount. The 60-milliliter samplers are $ 6 each or four for $ 20.

Lunko’s future plans include offering cooking demonstrations and after-hours tasting parties with an educational component, possibly next winter after the busy times of summer, Fort Ligonier Days and holiday shopping.

Spring hours at Laurel Highlands Olive Oil are 11 am-5pm Mondays and Wednesdays-Fridays, 10 am-5pm Saturdays and noon-4pm Sundays. The shop is closed Tuesdays.

For information, visit laurelhighlandsoliveoil.com.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, smcmarlin@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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