Sunday, December 2, 2012

Monterey's Mission

The beautiful Carmel Mission

Monterey may be the bread basket of America (the Salinas Valley is one of the most fertile places in the country), and home to Cannery Row and the fantastic Monterey Bay Aquarium and neighbor to Carmel and Big Sur, but it’s also home to three historic California Missions, all wildly different, two of which you’ve probably never visited. Many people forget that Spain ruled this area for over 200 years and the Spanish were on California soil in the mid 1500s. It is the chain of 21 Spanish missions that, in essence, created the blue print for what eventually became California. In fact Highway 101 was originally the dirt road that connected the missions known as El Camino Real – “the king’s highway” - and the mission themselves acted as early trading posts and historical repositories.
Sunday services at Carmel

San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission –Carmel’s Crown
Known succinctly Carmel Mission (3080 Rio Rd., Carmel, 831/624-1271, Daily 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Admission $6.50), is still a very active parish with regular Sunday services (all three missions offer mass). The large compound includes an extensive museum with the first known library in California still on display – courtesy of the mission fathers who were the first librarians and historians in California as not much else existed in the late 1700s. There are exhibits of early Native American culture, building materials from the mission period, vestments and displays on how the friars lived and cooked. The chapel is more ornate than the other California missions and it’s clear that a lot of money has been spent on upkeep as the place looks nearly pristine and the grounds are expansive and beautiful. It can get crowded, making parking out front difficult, but the mission is just on the outskirts of Carmel.

Mission San Antonio - the olive tree is at right
Mission San Antonio de Padua –Lost in Time
The third mission started in California’s chain of 21 is Mission San Antonio founded in 1771 (Fort Hunter Liggett, 831/385-4478, Jolon, daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Admission $3). It’s commonly referred to as “the mission that time forgot” and that’s unfortunate, but here’s why - it’s 25 miles off Highway 101. The location is remote and it sits on the Fort Hunter Liggett U.S. Army base which the public can access (have your drivers’ license and proof of insurance ready – you cannot get on base without them). Look for the original brick wine vat, constructed between the late 1700s early 1800s, which uses a gravity flow system. This was one of the first missions to produce wine and the interior courtyard has a large vine by the well which is originally from Spain, lugged over here when the missions were founded. Several other rooms display artifacts like embroidered vestments, mission era tools and priests’ quarters. 
This grapevine was brought over from Spain by the padres

There are also remnants of the old waterworks and a beautiful large olive tree planted in 1846 right out front. The church itself is longer than most, but simply decorated, with painted wainscoting along the walls. The mission was damaged in a recent earthquake and the race is on to raise money for much needed restoration or else it will be shuttered, and we’d hate to lose a valuable piece of history. You may say toy yourself: why should I drive all the way out there to visit just an old mission? Well, aside from the historical significance, also located nearby is the old Hearst Hacienda – a ranch house on the former William Randolph Hearst property, designed by Julia Morgan and where Hearst would take his guests (Clark Gable and Errol Flynn stayed here) on horseback who were sojourning at the Hearst Castle. The Army bought it from Hearst in 1940 but you can stay the night here in one of the old ranch rooms. They are pretty Spartan, but you can also access the military bowling alley nearby for some food and maybe bowl a frame with a general. Room rates range from $50 to $95. You need to contact the Morale, Welfare and Recreation division of Fort Hunter Liggett and make reservations directly with them.
The Hearst Hacienda

Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad –Solitude in Soledad
Founded in 1791, Mission Soledad (36641 Fort Romie Rd., Soledad, 831/678-2586, daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., free admission) was the 13th in the chain of 21 missions. It too is one of the least visited missions even though it’s less than three miles off Highway 101 in Soledad (take the Arroyo Seco exit off Highway 101) and is an easy visit on the way to several of the area wineries. 
Mission Soledad
Every October there is a wine auction from mainly local wineries to raise money for restoration. The chapel is one of the smallest and most simple I have visited in the mission chains and the humble structure is surrounded by crop fields and you can see vineyards of the wineries in the Santa Lucia Highlands in the distance. It’s small and not as postcard-pretty as California’s other missions. The original mission was badly damaged in the floods of 1828, and wasn’t reconstructed until the early 1950s. But the original adobe walls can still be seen; mounds of rounded earth returning to the dirt from whence they came. In its day, the mission hosted a vineyard, fruit trees, and herds of cattle. There are a few rooms of artifacts on display from the mission days.
The original Mission Soledad walls

Check out this video I shot at Mission San Antonio in September 2012,
Monterey Mission Video
and make sure when you come to Monterey you find time to visit these missions as they are the link to California’s illustrious past.Contact them here:
Hearst Hacienda: (831) 386-2262

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Paso Robles’ Garage: A Wine Festival for the Curious

Quick, here’s a word association: I say “garage” and you say “_______” (fill in the blank). Chances are you weren’t thinking of wine, let alone hard-to-find wines…unless you’ve lost your own wine in your own garage and if so, you’re on your own.

Garage bands conjure up images of unseen talent lamenting away in near obscurity before they make it big. And the same is true with winemakers. The term garagiste is from the French meaning, well, garage, and it has nothing really to do with garages with the exception of winemakers in that country who are making small lots of wine, a few hundred cases to maybe a thousand cases, and who defy conventional winemaking to do their own thing. Frankly anyplace you visit has undiscovered hard-to-find wines, but they’re not easy to find…wait, we just covered that. Fortunately, the Paso Robles Garagiste Festival does the gathering work for you, enabling you to meet face-to-face with these elusive wines and winemakers.
Relaxing at Windfall Farms

The 2nd iteration was held at Windfall Farms in Creston, just east of Paso Robles on a crisp autumn day. There were 48 winemakers pouring 130 wines so realistically you can’t cover everything, but I can say from my experience as a wine writer, I did not find a bad wine out of the limited wineries I was able to visit. The wineries represented make less that 1,200 cases, and most make considerably fewer cases than that and the majority are off the radar. “You have to do a little digging to find us,” Per Cazo Cellars owner Dave Teckman told me. The sheer diversity and small allocations are one of the reasons to come to this. There is a propensity towards Syrah and Rhone blends, as Paso does these quite well, but make no mistake, this is not the usual suspects. For example:
Phillip Hart of Ambyth

Ambyth Estates makes biodynamic wine from biodynamic grapes. There has been so much mis-information about biodynamic wine and whereas it’s a convoluted subject to go into here, the bottom line is that it goes beyond organic and frankly, anything that does not add chemicals to our soils is a good thing. Phillip Hart’s wines ($38 - $45) will absolutely change your perception about biodynamic wine and just how solid they can be. Other producers include Paso Port whose seductive port wines ($30 - $45) are flat out comprehensive and terrific little numbers, and Bodega de Edgar, a rather sloppy name (named for owner/winemaker Edgar Torres) but who makes impressive Tempranillo ($32) and Tempranillo blends, as does Bodegas M who produces excellent Albariño and Tempranillo, both at $25.

Also observed at this festival are some of the Iberian varieties such as Albariño and Verdejo, and fun, funky blends like the energetic ZinG ($29) from Per Cazo which is a blend of Zinfandel and Grenache, two partners you don’t see dancing together, showing that wine need not be merely a standard offering of straight Cabernet. Of course, having said that, Mike Sinor’s Sinor-La Valle’s Pinot Noirs (only $30 - $40 and worth every penny) are true, delicate and straight forward Pinots with a slight backbone of Central Coast roughness.

There are wine-centric seminars, winemaker dinners and the usual trappings of any wine festival, but what sets this apart is that these winemakers are celebrated for being obscure. So plan on attending and plan early, it always sells out.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Santa Barbara’s Best Winemaker Dinner You’ve Never Attended

This is Santa Barbara - wine country - and there are winemakers dinners every week around here. I have attended my share of them as a wine and food writer and have seen every kind imaginable: fancy, rustic, celebrity chef, candlelight in the wine caves, blah, blah, blah. Often these wonderful dinners have the winemaker or winery owner present to talk about his or her juice, a fancy dinner, lots of loud guests and a tab which hits close to $150. Ouch. That’s a lotta bucks, but often these are 5 and 6 course affairs, with those specific wines paired with the food from said terrific kitchen. And yes, they are fun.

But what if there were a winemaker dinner series which had a specific theme (let’s say Oregon Pinot Noir versus California Pinot Noir; Cool-Climate Syrah versus Warm Climate Syrah, for example). And what if the winemaker was present talking and pouring his wine, but each guest also brought a bottle of wine tied in with the theme? (Simple math means that each guest or couple would amount to an additional 25 to 40 bottles of wine specific to the theme depending on how many guests show up). And what if the cost for the dinner wasn’t hovering well over a hundred bucks, but was priced at a stunning $50? Would you go? You bet your sweet dessert wine you’d go!

Well, guess what: 10 times each year the BYOB Wine & Dine dinner held at Max’s on Upper State Street does just this. Started by local wine lover Leslie Thomas, they were designed to showcase the diversity of wines from around Santa Barbara. On my visit on a Sunday night Tantara Winery owner Bill Cates (known for his wonderful Pinot Noirs) was on hand and the theme was Syrah. In addition to the Syrahs Bill brought, there were an additional 30 bottles of Syrah to sample: a tall order, but one I gladly accepted. And that’s the beauty of this format. You can contrast and compare Syrahs form multiple producers (there were lots of Syrahs from Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, Monterey and Washington State and some I never got to because frankly there were so many). To start the evening off there are assorted paired cheeses from C’est Cheese, the single best cheese shop in Santa Barbara. That was followed by three courses that Max’s staff prepared including an Herbed Gnocchi with Green Olives, Cippolini Onions, and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, followed by a Cassoulet of Braised Lamb with Cannellini Beans, Chard, and Stewed Tomatoes, and finally the night wrapped up with a Wine-Poached Pear with Dark Chocolate-Sesame Seed Bark, which was served with a late harvest wine from Tantara.
The staff at Max's prepares the meal
Yes, it’s a lot of food, a lot of wine and a lot of fun. Some in attendance are well versed with wine, others are relative newbie’s, but the common denominator is a love of wine with out all the stuffy pretentiousness. There is a small educational component, but this is not a formal class-room setting, so if you want to talk with the winemaker or owner, if have access to get more detailed if you want. So if winemaker dinners are new to you, or if you want a casual environment to sample plenty of wine specific to the theme of that evening, then definitely consider the BYOB series at Max’s. These are also great dinners if you are visiting for only a few days, or if you’ve lived here for decades. 

They run from 6 p.m. to about 9 p.m. and I highly recommend it. Check out their website under events for upcoming dinners. Max's restaurant

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Merlot in Monterey & Cabernet in Carmel? The Wines of Monterey County

People come to Monterey and Carmel to absorb the beautiful rugged coastline, visit Cannery Row, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but the wine culture here is thriving. Though the county is best known for the Santa Lucia Highlands, where high-end Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are being made, there is an incredible diversity of wine being produced here from Zinfandel to Albariño. So if you’re the adventurous type you’re in luck. I recently spent a week in Monterey Country immersing myself in the wide breadth of the wines.

This is merely an overview of what you can expect.

The first commercial grapes were Chenin Blanc planted in Chalone in 1919 and they are still there. Chalone Vineyards makes Chenin Blanc from these very vines. In the early 1920s Chardonnay was planted, but like everywhere else in the country, Prohibition pretty much halted the growth of the wine industry. It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that serious plantings began to emerge. The main tasting areas are:
The original Chenin Blanc vineyard from 1919, lower center

River Road in the Santa Lucia Highlands is that quintessential vineyard experience: you drive from vineyard to vineyard; there are scenic vistas and you’re in the heart of farm country. Of note the views at Hahn and Paraiso are the best and take into account the vines in front of you, the Salinas Valley, and the Gabilan mountain range in the distance. These tasting room hours tend to be more weekend oriented and are working wineries, so check in advance. River Road cuts through the Santa Lucia Highlands and the preponderance here is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, though not exclusively. You’ll also find places like Wrath and Marilyn Remark offering Syrah and Rhone wines.
Hand harvesting Pinot Noir

Carmel Village has within its small geometric core, half a dozen tasting rooms including Caraccioli Cellars which is located right downtown. Their focus is sparkling wine and they are one of the few to make sparklers in the entire county. Their wines range in price from $20 to $57, and tasting fees start at $5 and head to $15. And Caraccioli is one of the few places open later (Carmel is notorious for rolling up their sidewalks early) so you can sample a sparkler made from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay before or even after dinner and grab a small bite of popcorn, bruschetta or a cheese plate. The great thing about downtown Carmel is you can walk to all the tasting rooms, hit some shops, and find lunch and dinner all within close proximity.

The Carmel Valley located inland from the seaside village, is awash with wineries and tasting rooms numbering a dozen currently. “The Row” a slice of seven tasting rooms in a long row is the sister to the number of vineyard properties and stand alone tasting rooms which increasingly populate the warmer valley region. Many of the white wines from this area have a more noticeable acidity and minerality which I find best expressed in a new winery called Silvestri, who make wines ranging from $20 to $40, and with a mere 3,000 cases they embody “boutique” ideals here. Their Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay deviate from the standard offerings precisely because of a minimal use of oak and letting the grapes retain their acidity. But Carmel Valley wines, including hearty reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and even Merlots which can be surprisingly balanced, though somewhat lacking on the finish. Nonetheless the valley, which first saw Cabernet planted in 1983, is capable of turning out very good though wildly different iterations of these reds.
Sabrine Rodems of Wrath Wines

Some of the most intriguing wines however are coming from Sabrine Rodems of Wrath, and Ian Brand who makes wine for Pierce Ranch, Coastview and his own label. They are indicative of a no-holds-barred attitude of experimenting with whole cluster fermentation, new grape varieties, and finding oddball vineyards with massive potential. Another great discovery is Marin’s Vineyard based in the southern part of Monterey County near Jolon. Small unassuming and well priced, this 800 case winery is doing a remarkable job with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Viognier. Also located in the southern end, but with a tasting room near Cannery Row, is Pierce Ranch who makes what are called Iberian varieties; Albariño, Touriga even a wonderful classic California Zinfandel. And don’t be surprised on your travels if you see falcons or owls above the vineyards. These incredible birds are employed to keep other birds from eating grapes off the vines.
Louise is a Eursian Owl

And of course wine needs food: some of my personal favorites include Manduka and Grasing’s in Carmel, Passion Fish in Pacific Grove, and the Sardine Factory, The Duck Club Grill, and Restaurant 1833 all in downtown Monterey. Regardless of where exactly you spend your time, you’ll find a vast selection of diverse wines. So always drink local and always try something new; you’ll see Monterey Country in a whole new light. And when you do, post a comment on this blog and let us know what you like and don’t like! 

And be sure to check out my 2 Minute Travel video shot at Hahn Winery:

Plan Your Trip

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Baker’s Dozen: Santa Barbara’s Sweet Pastry Chefs

Culinary trends keep cooking: molecular gastronomy, farm-to-table, food trucks, vegan and raw foods. Chefs are the new rock stars with loyal fans buying everything from cookbooks to cookware. But the role of the pastry chef is also rising to prominence as seen by these Santa Barbara pastry chefs. But what exactly is pastry chef; a glorified baker? A flunkie chef? Someone’s mom baking apple pie? The basic differences are that a baker tends to be an employee, (someone hammering out products at the discretion of their employer) but a pastry chef is just that, a chef, who oversees, plates and creates desserts as a leader, and decision maker.

Cielito’s Secret
Pastry chef Sandra Adu-Zelli, originally from the UK, started her career as a culinary chef at the Four Seasons in London and admits she doesn’t have a sweet tooth, therefore her approach to dessert is restrained. She has been cheffing since she was 16 and knew then she wanted to be a chef. “When I was training to be a chef I was very anti-pastry, I was a bit of a tom-boy and felt pastry was for girls,” she tells Cervins Central Coast. She didn’t have the patience for pastry, but now she loves the discipline and calmness of it. Cielito is Mexican food, not something she was exposed to in London, though many Mexican foods have their roots in Spain and Portugal. “My goal was to create desserts that are Mexican, but modern and fun.” Her crepes with cojetta cheese are one of the most popular desserts at the restaurant. But her Baked Alaska is a standout. “I think about food constantly and ways to mix it up and the Baked Alaska just came to me.” Adu-Zelli creates meringue accented with a pineapple relish and delicately topped with sugared cilantro leaves. 
Sandra's Baked  Alaska

The Sugar Cask
The Wine Cask’s pastry chef, Roise Gerard, also had a similar disdain for pastry early on.
“I have always wanted to be a cook ever since I was little, however I never wanted to do pastry, I thought it was a girl’s job,” she admits. She ended up loving pastries and today Gerard is known for adding savory ingredients to her desserts. “Many people don't understand how a dessert with basil, cilantro, or bacon can possibly be good,” she says, and she decries desserts that only activate the sweet taste buds. “Great desserts try out each taste bud: bitter, sour, salty, and sweet. I like to bring many levels of flavor into one dessert.” Her top desserts? The butterscotch pudding, the chocolate peanut butter cup, and the chocolate and goat cheese donuts. “I tried to take the donuts off once, we go so many complaints that I put it back on,” she admits. As a pastry chef of a small restaurant, one of her biggest challenges is that she does most of the work herself. “I am faced with the challenge to create a delicious and diverse menu that one person can execute.”

Daniel Sampson bakes everything from scratch
The same cannot be said for Daniel Sampson, pastry chef at the Bacara, who has a small army to help him. Sampson started his career with the Halifax Sheraton in Nova Scotia as a pizza cook. But he had fond memories of baking in the house when he was a kid. “My mother couldn’t read or write but she created these delicious desserts and was baking all the time.” His mom made bread in a big enamel bowl. “She’d place it on the sofa overnight,” Sampson recalls. It got cold at night so she’d place blankets over the bowl to keep the dough warm. “In the morning I’d be the first up to peek under the blanket to see the dough,” he recalls. Sampson makes most everything from scratch. “It’s healthier for people when I use authentic ingredients, like real butter” he says. Sampson creates a diversity of treats from meringues, to raspberry chocolate tortes to restaurant Miro’s signature dessert, orange blossom beignets. Four beignets, dusted with sugar are plated with a pot de crème with toasted pistachios sprinkled on top. The deep fried beignets are like billowy clouds that smell heavenly of fried dough.

Angels at Andersen’s
Birte and Charlotte Andersen keep Danish traditions alive
The mother and daughter team of Birte and Charlotte Andersen at Andersen’s are constantly coming up with new ideas. The drawback of experimenting with new pastry ideas is that failures cost a lot of money. “If the cream doesn’t set properly or the butter lacks the right butter fat content, you end up throwing the whole thing away,” Birte says. They avoid refined mixes and create Danish-inspired treats from scratch, using age-old Danish recipies. Being old-school European there is typically less sugar in their desserts. Organic butter, real cream and marzipan are the staples of Andersen’s, which has 30 different daily pastries. And they use three tons of marzipan annually. Favorites range from marzipan layer cakes, to puff pastries, Kringles, and butter rings. “These are heritage pastries,” says Charlotte.

So the next time you reach for dessert, remind yourself that someone created these culinary delights. With the resurgence of the local food movement, baked goods are cashing in on homespun goodness. “People are educating themselves,” says Daniel Sampson. “There are more a lot more requests for good, home baked things.” And that’s sweet news for everyone.


The Andersen’s

Wine Cask

Miro at the Bacara

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Crazy Characters of the California Gold Rush


The California Gold Rush saw tens of thousands of people descending into the Sierra Foothills (AKA Gold Country, and the Mother Lode) to make their fortune on gold and silver, or to provide lodging, services (legal and otherwise), and virtually anything as long as it made money. In fact it was these business people who did significantly better financially than any prospectors. Of necessity, certain key figures emerged during this time, allowing for Mother Lode history to be entertaining and always interesting.

Charles Bolton, AKA Black Bart
One of the key personalities was Black Bart the gentleman robber. His real name was Charles E. Bolton, a respected San Francisco citizen who committed 28 robberies against Wells Fargo stagecoaches before he was finally arrested. At first he mined for gold like so many others on the American River but that never amounted to much. There were easier ways to make money. His first hold up was in 1875 and he kept up his spree until 1883 when, during his last robbery near Copperopolis, just outside of Murphys, he was wounded, then finally arrested. He never took the personal belongings of the stagecoach passengers only the Wells Fargo loot, occasionally left poetry at the scene of his crimes, and was so scared of horses he committed his robberies on foot. It was said he was personable, even polite, when committing his crimes. He was known to have stayed at the Murphys Historic Hotel and you can stay in the room he once occupied. After his arrest he was sent to San Quentin and served just four years, but by 1888, the 59 year old, in poor health, vanished and no one knows whatever happened to him.

John Sutter
The name John Sutter will always be linked with the discovery of gold, though Sutter himself did not discover it; his partner John Marshall did in January of 1848. Prospectors were known as the 49ers, because by 1849 the “rush” to the Foothills was on and word about gold had spread to all parts of the globe. The gold was found at Sutter’s Mill, a sawmill on the banks of the American River in the tiny town of Coloma, north of Placerville not Sutter Creek. Originally from Switzerland, Sutter was never a good businessman and he racked up debts throughout most of his life. Generous and kind, he was often taken advantage of by the unscrupulous people he hired. He was granted 50,000 acres of land where the American River and the Sacramento River meet and set up his sawmill operations. He crafted a town nearby he called New Helvetia, what we now know as Sacramento. He fought for California statehood, worked with Russia to secure Fort Ross on the California coast, gave aid to immigrants in the area and his name is nearly everywhere in the Foothills. But the gold discovery did not make him rich. 

The exact spot where gold was discovered in 1848
Word got out and squatters came quickly, as early as March 1848 from San Francisco, and Sutter could not get them off his land. “By this sudden discovery of the gold, all my great plans were destroyed,” he wrote in 1857. “Had I succeeded for a few years before the gold was discovered, I would have been the richest citizen on the Pacific shore; but it had to be different. Instead of being rich, I am ruined, and the cause of it is the long delay of the United States Land Commission of the United States Courts, through the great influence of the squatter lawyers.” He was broke when he died in 1880. Today you can stand on the banks of the American River on the exact spot where the mill once was, and, at least for a moment or two, imagine what transpired that day in January of 1848 – a pivotal day which changed the face of California forever.

The One and Only Mark Twain
The most singularly well known person of the gold rush however was Mark Twain (Samuel Longhorn Clemens is his real name; Mark Twain is actually a nautical term he adopted) who migrated from San Francisco to the Foothills in the early 1860s, writing about the arduous mining life. While visiting friends in Angels Camp he heard a story about a frog jumping contest and how one frog lost because someone had fed the frog buckshot to weigh it down. No doubt amused by the absurdity of the situation Twain penned “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” which was published by the New York Saturday Press in November, 1865, and Twain became a media sensation and eventually an American icon. Even today the frog jumping contest is alive and well and as you walk along the stuck-in-time town of Angels Camp, just like the Hollywood walk of fame, there is the Angels Camp Frog Walk, with the various winners immortalized in bronze in the sidewalk. Twain published 13 novels in total (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are the most well known) as well as short stories, travel writing and his autobiography, published in 2010, 100 years after his death became a bestseller!
The Frog Walk of Fame in Angels Camp
For a look at the gold & silver mines in Southern California head over to my other travel blog: CALICO GHOST TOWN

Monday, April 23, 2012

Breakfast + Lunch = ....

The dessert station at the Bacara

Brunch. It’s what’s for dinner, or technically it’s what is between when you wake up and dinner. There are all manner of brunches in Santa Barbara from the Four Seasons Biltmore in Montecito (traditional station brunch on Sunday, $72 and $35 for kids; Saturday À la carte brunch $15 to $28), to scaled back versions like the Canary Hotel near mid State Street (brunch is Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., À la carte, $10 - $20) and Stella Mares (Sunday brunch À la carte menu, $12 to $23) located at the Andree Clark Bird Refugee. But for those days like Mother’s Day (the mother of all brunch days) you want to pull out the stops. The brunch at the Bacara Resort and Spa will fit that bill, and fill you up, all overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Located inside the terrific restaurant Miro, the Sunday Brunch is a blowout.

The organic salads are made to order
But where did the idea of a half-breakfast, half-lunch idea originate? We do know that “brunch” was first mentioned in 1895 in a British magazine called Punch. More than likely it was a term used for post-drunk reveler food on Sunday morning after a blitzy Saturday night of hard drinking. Allegedly it was a slang term but it doesn’t mean that the first iteration of brunch was just a way to pack protein into your body to offset too much alcohol. But it certainly seems likely. There is no clear information as to the exact origins, only conjecture. Regardless, the idea of brunch has been with us for over a hundred years now and certainly the elements of brunch have become more refined. And these days brunch is something of a ritual: Easter, Mother’s Day, Christmas and even New Years are prime brunch days, or like many people, you have a brunch party at your house (as I have done for years). Brunches consist of two different experiences: a traditional sit down restaurant where you order off the menu; and the station brunch where there will be stations around the restaurant for dessert, a carving station, another for made to order eggs and omelets, and the like, and you can eat as much as you want (please don’t make the mistake however of thinking you need to eat everything – I promise, you won’t feel well later).

Plenty of seafood, well, plenty of everything!
With a focus on local, seasonal produce, the Bacara brunch showcases a culinary happy-land highlighting organic produce from local farms at their salad station. And there are made-to-order omelets and waffles, seafood displays of oysters, crab and huge shrimp, and sushi. And like with the best brunches, there is prime rib from their carving station, artisanal cheeses (I’m loving the Humboldt Fog), plenty of side potato-based dishes, fresh fruit and an entire bagel bar. All this and way more is set inside the spacious and colorful Miro environment. Oh, and you can have mimosas or Champagne.

The dessert station includes chocolate-covered lollipops with pistachio cheesecake inside, to chocolate and strawberry mousse, carrot cakes, whoopee pies, and pots de crème, all created from scratch by pastry chef Daniel Sampson, who learned some of the basics from him mother, grandmother and aunt growing up in Nova Scotia. Personally I love his meringue with fresh whipped cream, passion fruit, strawberry and kiwi. There are over 25 different desert items to sample. Brunch is $70 for adults, and $30 for the young ones and has more food than mentioned here, a virtual food bonanza with something to make everyone satisfied. It’s best to make reservations at all of these brunch spots, then enjoy and be happy that you are brunching here in Santa Barbara

Monday, April 2, 2012

Catastrophic Failure: Ventura County & The St. Francis Dam Collapse

The St. Francis Dam shortly after completion

At five minutes to midnight, on Thursday, March 12th, 1928, the towns of Santa Paula, Newhall, Piru and Fillmore in Ventura County, spread out along a river valley, were undoubtedly peaceful, sequestered from harm, residents asleep in their warm beds. Less than three minutes later, all hell would break loose and 600 people would be dead. The event was the single worst engineering disaster of the 20th Century in the United States, and the second worst disaster in California history. Though it has become a footnote in Ventura’s history, the St. Francis Dam Disaster is a tragedy of unparalleled proportions. Why the dam was built and why it failed is a complex story of greed, vision, money, and dreams of the future. Fundamentally however, it’s about an essential human resource - water.

The dry riverbed of the St. Francis today
Southern California is a semi-arid environment. Water, we assume, has always been plentiful. Everyday we observe people washing their cars, shopkeepers hosing down concrete sidewalks; we see lush lawns and gardens, and it streams effortlessly from our faucet as we brush our teeth. But water comes at a price, even the price of death. When Los Angeles began to grow exponentially, William Mullholland, the chief engineer of the Bureau of Water Works and Supply, the precursor to the Department of Water and Power (DWP), envisioned Los Angeles as a utopia for millions of people, who dwelt on the banks of the Pacific Ocean as carefree sojourners, however Los Angeles would soon run out of the one thing that made its existence possible - water. The Owens Valley was a rural farming community, 250 miles north of L.A. and it held massive amounts of water, fresh from the snow packs of the Sierra Nevada’s, which could provide the burgeoning metropolis with every drop it needed.
Los Angeles began to surreptitiously buy water and land rights in the Owens Valley. But getting the water to Southern California was a problem. In 1910 Mulholland built an aqueduct 230 miles long, using gravity flow over mountains and across deserts, which is still recognized as one of the great engineering achievements of the early 20th Century. As water levels in the Owens Valley decreased, anger increased. Mulholland’s aqueduct was repeatedly dynamited ten times. But Los Angeles continued to grow faster than anyone anticipated. When the Owens Valley ran dry, L.A secured water from Mono Lake, north of Owens Valley; then the Colorado River in Nevada; then the Feather River near Sacramento. That Los Angles was unable to secure a dam site in the Owens Valley, known as Long Valley, in order to build a vast reservoir, proved a terrible and costly oversight. Mulholland believed that a series of dams and reservoirs, closer to L.A., away from the politically unstable Owens Valley, would be the safe bet in case emergency water was needed. He decided on a narrow canyon, north of Santa Clarita, known as San Fransicquito Canyon.

The day after the collapse - notice the two persons in the lower right
Construction of the St. Francis Dam began in April, 1924. In July of that year, the original dam height of 184 feet was extended 10 vertical feet in order to expand its holding capacity. One year later another ten vertical feet was added. Raising the dam 20 feet allowed more storage capacity, but what was overlooked was widening its base to be commensurate with its new height. Known as “hydraulic uplift,” the base of the dam actually raised up slightly prior to its demise due to its inherent instability. It short, it became top-heavy. Additionally, the rock the dam was anchored to, known as schist, a flaky metamorphic rock, was not fully understood by the engineers at the time, nor did they know that the mountain the dam was adhered to was part of an ancient landslide and was also inherently unstable. Simply put, the technology did not exist to know unequivocally that the rock was solid.  It wasn’t. The dubious rock was becoming saturated with water. Ironically, on March 11th, the day before the failure, William Mullholland himself inspected the dam about 10:30 a.m. and pronounced it secure.

A colored rendition of the dam showing only the center section
At 11:57 p.m., the St. Francis Dam collapsed. The left side of the dam gave way first, unable to support the weight of nearly 13 billion gallons of water. What was once a life-giving force turned into death itself and merged with the Santa Clara River. The initial wall of water was 200 feet high. Of the 70 people that lived just below the dam, only three survived. By the time the water hit Castaic Junction, near present day Magic Mountain, it was 75 feet high and Santa Paula faced a torrent still 25 feet high with trees and broken houses acting like battering rams obliterating everything. The path of destruction was 54 miles long. In Newhall, a makeshift morgue was set up in the dance hall, which was still festooned with decorations from the dance held there the night before. “Bodies found by the river were so heavily encrusted with mud they had to be hosed off when they got to the mortuary to see if they were breathing,” recalled survivor Elizabeth Blanchard. Five and a half hours after the dam collapsed it lapped the Pacific Ocean near Ventura Harbor. If you drive highway 126 today, it’s possible to retrace the nearly exact route the water took through the Santa Clara River.

Mulholland (L) inspects the dam the day after the collapse
The “official” death toll was 450 people. Many historians believe that with the number of migrant Mexican farm workers living at Camulos, the death toll was closer to 600. “There were a lot of Hispanics living by the river and a lot got killed,” recalled survivor Eva Griffiths of Santa Paula. “The police tried to warn them, but they didn’t understand English. It was terrible,” she said. Poor immigrant workers don’t land on the front page of major newspapers, not in 1928 and certainly not today. But they died. By the hundreds.  Cattle too; livestock, cars, roads, power lines, bridges, rail track, farms, all washed to the ocean or covered in a blanket of mud, debris and wreckage nearly 30 feet thick. Bodies were recovered as far south as San Diego. Some bodies were found weeks later in the isolated canyons along the Santa Clara River. And some bodies have never been found.  Men, women and children were obliterated in the middle of the night, in their beds.  Some fought the torrent of water, only to drown or be crushed by the fast moving debris.  Perhaps mercifully so, some families died instantaneously, family pets being the only survivors; mute witnesses to the unthinkable. 

The numbers are staggering: 1,200 homes demolished, 24,000 acres of fertile land destroyed, almost 11,000 acres of crops laid waste, 140,000 trees uprooted or badly damaged. Nearly 3,000 volunteers searched for bodies. The reality is that the St. Francis Dam should never have been built where it was. Had Los Angeles secured the necessary property rights for the Long Valley reservoir, the St. Francis would not have been constructed. But politics and myopic thinking prevented a logical solution. The fact remains that the St. Francis Dam killed scores of people, bankrupt farmers in the Owens Valley, and brought riches to Los Angeles. If history means anything, L.A’s success was purchased on the backs of dead and dying people.

Just some of the hundreds of bodies recovered
After multiple inquires and reports, dam safety legislation changed. Prior to the St. Francis, there was little dam construction oversight. Two days after the St. Francis fell, the federal government required all dams to be inspected (similar to the widespread concern of bridges after the I-35 Mississippi River Bridge collapsed in Minnesota killing 13 people). California mandated professional registration for engineers, and the DWP established soil compaction tests and acquired a greater understanding of hydraulic uplift.

There were a multitude of design deficiencies of the St. Francis. It’s now understood that the dam was built into an ancient landslide, something Mulholland could not have known at the time, and in fact 254 dams worldwide have been identified as having been built against such unstable rock, though currently they are still standing. But probably the greatest single factor was the decision to heighten the dam a second time. The resulting hydrostatic pressure on the dam and its left abutment created an untenable situation. In fact, around 8 p.m., four hours before the failure, on a road that ran above the dam, one witness recalled seeing a 12-inch high mound of dirt across the roadway. The landslide had actually begun hours before the collapse.
Looking downstream today with the remnants of the dam in the foreground

Today the dam site is tangible history. There are discarded beer cans, soda bottles and spent shell casings lining the old flood path, a disturbing reminder that tragedy means nothing if it is forgotten, and that respect for the loss of life is little more than a trash heap. Parts of the dam are still visible, though malformed and eroding. What is eerily noticeable is the landslide, clearly cut from the mountain even over 80 years later. There are few remaining survivors to the tragedy but in 2007, writing an article for the Ventura County Reporter on this subject, I sat down with Catherine Mulholland, granddaughter of William Mulholland - who passed away in July, 2011. “By now we know that Homo sapiens have plundered the earth,” she told me. “We’ve dislodged, displaced and removed forests and oceans. We’ve flourished and also suffered. When you move water, things get destroyed in the process.”
Catherine Mulholland during my four hour interview with her - 2007

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Courting Beauty: The Santa Barbara County Courthouse

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse has been rightly called the most beautiful public building in America, and honestly there is no argument. You don’t have to know anything about architecture to be in awe of this impressive building so make sure you bring your camera. This is classic Santa Barbara and you need to see it when you visit. Covering an entire block the courthouse is a stunning example of Spanish and Moorish (Persian) design. William Mooser III designed this courthouse to replace the earlier 1872 version built on the same site, a Colonial-Jeffersonian looking thing with a massive domed copula and lots of columns.
The Sunken Gardens from the Clocktower

But the 1926 earthquake changed the face of Santa Barbara forever. When the new courthouse was completed in 1929 it was unlike anything in the city. Lush grounds including the copious lawn and Sunken Gardens (you’ll find lots of concerts and events happening here) lay the foundation for the sandstone building with arabesque windows, archways, hand painted wood ceilings, and walls with intricate designs, and pueblo tile inlays nearly everywhere flashing brilliant colors and native designs. While you visit make sure you look up - the hand painted ceilings and beams were done in a style known as Dutch-Metal whereby paint was mixed with copper and zinc to achieve what looks like gold inlay.
Of particular note is the Mural Room, once used for the county board of supervisors for about 30 years. The huge room (40 feet wide by 70 feet long with 25 foot ceilings) is covered in a mural depicting the early Chumash Indians and following the history of the area towards California statehood in 1850. (As a matter of worthless trivia, the City of Santa Barbara is actually older than the State of California: Santa Barbara was founded on April 9th, 1850, and California achieved statehood on September 9th, 1850, so there!) The chandeliers in the Mural Room weight in at half a ton each.

The Clocktower, known as El Mirador, is one of the tallest structures in the city, a mere 85 feet, but it is here where you will get the best views of downtown, the mountains and ocean from a downtown perspective. Take the elevator to the fourth floor. Once there, a dozen steps lead up and out to the platform. You’ll be thrilled at the red tile roofs splayed out in front of you on the nearby buildings, the Rivera where you can see the twin Mission towers, the Channel Islands, ever the tip of Ventura, and of course everything in between. There are placards describing points of interest at each direction so you can easily get your bearings. This is a must photo-op.
From the Clocktower you can see the red tile roofs of Santa Barbara

This is also still a functioning courthouse (I know this all too well as I served on jury duty here for three weeks, but in a crappy unadorned courtroom!). You don’t need the tour to appreciate the sheer beauty and craftsmanship of the building, but they will give you more specific information. Ironically, by Santa Barbara County’s current building codes and standards, the courthouse would never be approved and built today: it’s massing would be considered too great, it would violate the height ordinance of 60 feet, and there is no adequate parking. Fortunately it remains a jewel in Santa Barbara and frankly, the best expression of what Santa Barbara was envisioned to be like in the late 1920s.
There are beautiful details everywhere

The Courthouse is located at 1100 Anacapa St. (805/962-6464, and free docent tours are conducted at 2 p.m. daily, except Sunday. Additional tours are at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Friday. 

WATCH my 2 Minute Travel video shot in the Clocktower here: