When people walk into Stephen Bunni’s shop to pick up a bottle of olive oil few are aware of the labour of love that lies behind the product. Mr. Bunni’s olive oil is pressed from his own olive grove in Lazio, Italy, an hour’s drive south from Rome. The farm is his personal project.
His face lights up as he tells me about it. “I bought this land with these trees because I fell in love with it”.
Mr. Bunni, owner of Da Mario Italian Delicatessen on Highbury Park Road, was visiting suppliers in Italy and he saw a picture of the land in an estate agent’s window.
He says the way the late southern facing afternoon sun hit the hills made him want the farm then and there. “It was like a picture of green grass and trees”. Seven years on, Mr. Bunni returns every November at harvest time to his labour of love to pick the olives and send them to the press. There are now about 200 olive trees.
“By the time I pay for all the expenses there is no profit left. But you take it to the press, and wait for few hours and then you see your oil coming out, it’s rewarding. It isn’t for the money, it’s for the passion of it. This business, a lot of it is that. It’s passion. It is just to see an effort that goes into quality and the result of that.”
People recognize the high-end value the store offers and have been returning for years. Mr. Bunni says that from the time he started working in the shop, he’s watched several generations of Highbury customers walk through the door.
“When I was a teenager they used to come with their parents and they were three or four years old, or they were in a push chair and now they’ve grown up and in their late 20s early 30s and now have their own children.”
Mr. Bunni says that since his youth, Highbury and Islington has changed beyond recognition.
“England’s taste buds have grown a lot since the 70s.”
In the 70s his store’s top sellers were English cheddar, brie, some gorgonzola and parmesan. But now, people travel more. Their tastes have grown more sophisticated and their demands more specific. Mr. Bunni now fills the shelves with cheeses and meats from all over France, Italy and parts of England.
“These days,” Mr. Bunni laughs, “it’s sometimes easier to take the plane to Rome than the train to Liverpool.”
People return from their European vacations and race to Mr. Bunni to replicate their European menus. Mr. Bunni’s job is to keep up with the fads.
“Calabria is more popular and we get people asking for ‘nduja, a spreading salami. A few years ago, it was Sardinia, and everyone wanted the special music bread that came from there.”
Celebrity chefs have influenced what people buy, as well.
“One weekend we ran out of mascarpone. In just two hours of trading, a whole weekend’s worth is gone. We ordered just the same every week. Later a customer told us about a recipe by Nigel Slater in the Observer. The Observer comes out on a Sunday. On Sunday, we can’t source any more mascarpone, it’s too late, even if I want to go and get it myself, I can’t. Two, three days’ worth of cheese is gone in two hours, because Nigel Slater wrote his articles.”
Mr. Bunni knows his customers.
“Us being here so long, we have become a brand and people know what they get from this brand. I am even more vigilant about what I sell to make sure this is what the customer is looking for. I take pride about what goes in my shop and when people come and buy it and they show appreciation and they enjoy it I think that is the biggest satisfaction.”
Mr. Bunni sent me home with a bottle of his olive oil and my husband and I went through an entire loaf of bread, unable to stop returning to savour the surprisingly earthy taste. Its flavour transported us both and we munched with eyes closed, imagining we were basking in south facing Italian sun.