The Lavender Rabbit
Despite its name, this shop will bring out your inner tortoise.
It's one of those days when the clouds can't decide what to do with themselves. Float harmlessly in a sea of otherwise blueness? Flex their muscles and dump buckets of rain? Regardless, I put outdoor work aside to run some errands, which eventually lead me to The Lavender Rabbit, a gourmet gift store in Erie's Village West.
Immediately, I'm greeted by Gracie, the beautiful blonde Cocker Spaniel with lashes a supermodel would kill for. The Lavender Rabbit's owner, Susan Marshall, follows closely behind. Marshall opened the store in Nov. 2013, with the goal of bringing high-quality olive oils, balsamic vinegars, and other flavorful, minimally-processed gourmet accoutrements to Erie.
The three of us wander through displays of Turkish glass plates, decorative candles, gift cards, and teas, to the tasting room, where we settle at a bistro table. Intermittent sun flirts with the windows behind us. It's like sitting in someone's sunroom, but they've kindly set out myriad jars and bottles of deliciousness to explore.
I feel myself unwinding, some. Our conversation meanders through territories of wellness, simplicity, and slowing down that could as easily be about life in general as they are about food. We discuss the ways industrial agriculture and the modern food system have rushed us headlong toward quantity while sacrificing quality. How far-reaching negative impacts have been in terms of taste, environmental impact, and nutritional value. How we've lost our connection to eating well as a source of deep, alimentative pleasure. Marshall hopes to help inspire Erieites to embrace the manifold rewards of creating quality meals.
"Healthy food can be so simple and taste really, really good," she says. "And infused oils and balsamic vinegars make cooking a gourmet meal so easy, you don't even need to have fresh herbs on hand."
I sample a basil-infused olive oil, and feel like I'm grazing in my herb garden. And by "sample," I mean, essentially, that I do a shot of it. "You don't have to taste all of this, obviously," Marshall says, as she hands me a little cup of golden goodness.
Oh, but I do, obviously. "How wonderful to be in a place where you can unabashedly do shots of olive oil," I remark, polishing off the last of the basil-infused nectar, and secretly plotting a re-pour.
The Lavender Rabbit offers oils from California, Greece, Spain, Italy, and Peru. Two hemispheres equal two harvest schedules. "So the turnover is amazing," she adds. "Nothing gets old."
The olive oils are either organic certified or organic practice, meaning that — although uncertified — they're produced in alignment with organic standards. We talk for a spell about how "organic" labeling is redundant in many countries, particularly among older growers still using the same chemical-free, sustainable practices as their forebears. And quite often, requiring foods produced by traditional farms to be USDA certified organic leads more to creating bureaucratic hurdles than to improving the food, itself.
Marshall sources her olive oils from small private groves, so there's "less processing, less storage — and more quality."
"When you have only a small grove," she explains, "you care about every olive."
She carries aged balsamic vinegars only from Modena, Italy: the traditional heart of balsamics, where there even exists a Consortium for Protection of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.
It's fitting that these balsamics are from Italy, where the Slow Food Movement began in the 1980s, with the "initial aim to defend regional traditions, good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slow pace of life."
Slow Food's genesis arose out of "a demonstration on the intended site of a McDonald's at the Spanish Steps in Rome." Since then, Slow Food has evolved into an international movement whose manifesto promotes food that is comprehensively good, clean, and fair: from soil to senses, and producer to plate. It's a way to trace our food back to its literal roots, and to recognize that every eating choice we make is a political, social, and spiritual act.
Marshall and I lament how typical modern food has become something to prepare hurriedly and consume excessively, as if more of a bad thing might amount to a good thing. But food — done well — has the power to nourish our bodies and souls. And though quality food may initially cost more, it pays off in the long run.
"This is simple, good food that tastes great," she explains. "You don't need as much quantity if you have the quality."
Well, you don't need as much. But want is another story. I wonder how long I can sit in The Lavender Rabbit's tasting room while Marshall brings me samples before she realizes that our interview is over, and now I'm just snacking. Slowly. But still.
I'm ready to surrender, and then Marshall offers me Jalapeño Whiskey Mustard. Then Peach Bourbon Jam, which she suggests would be a great glaze on a fruit tart.
Or on my finger, I think. Skip the middleman.
This fall, Marshall will take The Lavender Rabbit on the road as a festival vendor, including at the Mt. Pleasant Harvest Fest in Edinboro during the first two weekends in October. I'm assuming Gracie will assist.
Eventually, Marshall, Gracie, and I make our way toward the door. I realize I've just conducted an interview in this morning's gardening clothes, fully unkempt from my hair to my ratty old sandals. I apologize to Marshall for showing up in come-as-you-are disarray. She laughs.
"You don't ever have to worry about that here," she says reassuringly. "This is just that kind of place."
Katie Chriest can be contacted at katie@ErieReader.com.