In the days before the modern supermarket adopted a one-size-fits-all approach to food distribution, consumers purchased their cheese, meat, vegetables and other goods from individual businesses specializing in one or two products at most. What they sacrificed in convenience by not having everything under one roof they gained in the quality of service and expertise they received at these smaller, family-run operations.
Situated on a sunny street corner in the historic neighborhood of Almagro in Buenos Aires, La Casa de Las Aceitunas (The Olive House) is one of those rare places that maintain the age-old tradition of the neighborhood shop, its identity inextricably tied to the past. Even in a city rife with nostalgia, where crumbling European-style haciendas offer constant reminders of its glory days, this unique locale is a dusty gem you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else.
Upon entering, the palpable aroma of fresh olives emanating from the dozen 40-gallon barrels that crowd the floor immediately draws you in. Dusty jars filled with pickled this and that line the shelves, from which old portraits of Argentine celebrities hang, modest testaments to the store’s local prestige. One shelf is dedicated entirely to olive oil, which is sold according to size in bottles bearing the family name.
Liliana Katsaounis represents the third generation and first female in a line of devoted owners at La Casa de Las Aceitunas, which has occupied the same building since its founding. Her great-uncle Constantino, a Greek immigrant who had sold cointreau and wine in the old country, opened the store in August of 1958 and soon partnered up with Liliana’s father. Together they worked year in year out to establish a loyal clientele of olive lovers until their near-simultaneous deaths in 1995.
“At that time in ’58,” Liliana told us one morning before busy hours, “you had the central market of Abasto on Avenida Corrientes, and each business in the neighborhood specialized in certain products. You had places that sold cheese, olives, wine, anything really. In the case of my great-uncle, he decided to sell olives exclusively. And it stayed that way until my husband and I officially took over in 2000. We had to adapt to the times a little to fit changes in consumer habits and the economic realities in this country. That’s why we started selling kosher products.”
Almagro is home to one of the largest Jewish populations in Buenos Aires, and La Casa de Las Aceitunas happens to be one of the only places in the city where you can find the big, juicy black olives central to Israeli and Mediterranean cuisine.
“Our olives come from two main provinces in Argentina,” she explains. “80 per cent come from Mendoza; these are the standard green olives we offer. The remaining 20 per cent are black olives from La Rioja province, where they flourish. This has to do with climatic differences between the two regions. It’s these black olives, called negras naturales, that attract so many Jewish consumers.” In addition, La Casa de Las Aceitunas imports hummus, tabbouleh, couscous and other regional products popular among this group.
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