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Olive oil in coffee? New Starbucks line a curiosity in Italy

Putting olive oil in coffee is hardly a tradition in Italy, but that didn’t stop Starbucks interim CEO Howard Schultz from launching a series of beverages that do just that in Milan, the city that inspired his coffee house empire.

The coffee-olive oil concoction – echoing a keto-inspired trend of adding butter to coffee, only with a sugary twist – has provoked both amusement and curiosity among Italians.

Gambero Rosso, an Italian food and wine magazine, called the mixing of olive oil with coffee “a curious combination” but said it was reserving judgement, having not yet sampled the drinks.

It did praise featuring the staple of Italian kitchens as a main ingredient, not just a condiment. The magazine also noted the health benefits of consuming extra virgin olive oil, which some Italians do habitually straight from the bottle.

“Did we need coffee with extra virgin olive oil and syrups? Maybe yes, maybe no,” wrote the magazine’s Michela Becchi. But the chance to promote Italian excellence is a valuable one, she added.

Italy’s olive oil producers’ association, ASSITOL, welcomed “the daring innovation,” saying the line of drinks could “relaunch the image of olive oil, especially among young people.” The association has been promoting adding olive oil to cocktails.

Martina Lunardi, a student of cultural mediation, was sticking to her standard cappuccino on a recent Starbucks visit, but said she wasn’t offended by the olive oil combos and might even try one someday.

“Anyway, I know where to get a regular cup of coffee,” Lunardi said.

Schultz came up with the notion of adding olive oil to coffee after visiting an olive oil producer in Sicily and teased the idea as a game changer in his last earnings call. He worked with an in-house coffee drink developer to come up with recipes, the international coffee chain said.

Schultz presided over the launch of ‘Oleato’ – meaning ‘oiled’ in Italian – last week on the eve of Milan Fashion Week, with a Lizzo performance for an invitation-only crowd at the company’s Milan Roastery. The beverages will be rolled out in Southern California this spring and in Japan, the Middle East and the United Kingdom later this year.

Tourists who throng the Milan Roastery are enticed to give the drinks a try by placards around the store and a special menu insert advertising the five-drink assortment, which ranges from EUR5.50 to EUR14 (US$5.85 to US$14.85) for a martini version with vodka.

“It’s good,” said Benedicte Hagen, a Norwegian who recently moved to Milan to pursue a modelling career. “I’m not a big coffee fan, that’s why I like to try drinks like this.”

She was sipping the Oleato Golden Foam Cold Brew, which includes vanilla bean syrup, and said she couldn’t really taste the oil. Still, she acknowledged asking the barista to add a shot of chocolate to make the drink even sweeter and would have added caramel if it had been available.

“It’s not so random,” Hagen decided.

It is not the first time Italy has inspired Schultz. He acknowledges his debt to the Milan coffee bar, which he discovered during a trip to Italy in 1983, as his inspiration for building the now-global coffee chain.

Schultz waited until 2018 to bring Starbucks to Italy, aware that he was treading sacred coffee ground. Italians typically take their coffee standing at a bar, chatting with friends or the barista for a few minutes, before continuing their day. It is not something to be nursed.

Since then, Starbucks has opened some 20 stores in northern and central Italy. The Milan Roastery is often packed, while other locations in the city have shifted in the wake of the pandemic.


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