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Top 10 Los Angeles Artisan Food Producers

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Mon, Dec 17, 2012 at 7:37 AM

click to enlarge Nory Locum Turkish Delight Factory Kitchen - JGARBEE
  • jgarbee
  • Nory Locum Turkish Delight Factory Kitchen
How do you, how does anyone, define the term artisan today? The answer, less than five years ago, was an independent food crafter of various genres, ages, types and vastly different production yields. The schoolteacher who makes only a few hundred jars of jam annually in a shared rental kitchen. The third generation family of confectioners who make several hundred batches of Mexican candies a week, yet still insist on still making every single piece by hand (and using handmade equipment) in their tiny East L.A. kitchen. That handmade quality was all that mattered.

Back then, being an "artisan" also had nothing to do with whether those jams made appearances at farmers markets or "artisan events" like Renegade, Urban L.A. or Artisanal L.A. And not because their product wasn't worthy of those venues, but by necessity. They were too busy making candy six days a week. Yet in a span of just a few years, we rarely hear of the food crafts that these more established artisans are preserving.

click to enlarge Vicente Mendez Cutting Jamoncillo (milk fudge) On A Slicer Made From Guitar Strings - JGARBEE
  • jgarbee
  • Vicente Mendez Cutting Jamoncillo (milk fudge) On A Slicer Made From Guitar Strings
That's not to say the younger generation of artisans are not equally fantastic. Many of their products are better, even, than their seasoned predecessors. We should be celebrating the new artisan jam and pickle gurus like Jessica Koslow when they are successful enough to open their own café. And we're thrilled to hear that the McCarthy's San Angel Mole sauce finally got on Sur La Table's shelves after so many years of hard work. Even as they expand, they're still artisans in our mind, just as a baker who graduates from a few baskets of pretzels to thousands a day is still one of our very best bakers.

This is a top ten list that varies from our previous Top 10 editions, as the artisans here deliver products that go well beyond flavor. Some remind of us of our culinary heritage, some are recreating lost arts. Others offer a glimpse into our creative future. All are exceptional at their craft. It was impossible to mention them all, as L.A. has hundreds of deserving artisans of all molds, so think of this not as a finite list, but as a catalyst to nominate your favorites in the comments below. Let's applaud L.A.'s artisan diversity this holiday season and in the years to come.

click to enlarge Coldwater Canyon Jams & Pickles - JGARBEE
  • jgarbee
  • Coldwater Canyon Jams & Pickles
10. Coldwater Canyon Provisions Jams, Jellies & Pickles

Shocking flavor combinations turn artisans into blog headlines. A couple of clever tattoos and a retro apron don't hurt. Hot pepper jelly made by a middle-aged, teddy bear of a guy like Rondo Mieczkowski, not so much. Mieczkowski and his partner, Danny Barillaro, founded Coldwater Canyon Provisions with the idea of taking more of an old-school, pickled-okra approach to their recipes. Many of the recipes are humble tributes to Mieczkowski's grandmother. If he makes a product in a traditional style, like pickled okra, Mieczkowski lets you know not to expect any fancy rosemary and lavender tweaks. Others, like pickled apples, are dubbed "gourmet" for reasons that aren't exactly clear.

It's all part of the charm. What you likely won't hear, as it's not a sales tactic: Coldwater donates a portion of their sales to Under the Bridges and On the Streets, a nonprofit that provides services for L.A.'s homeless. Coldwater Canyon products are available on Etsy , at various craft fairs and local shops (Twig & Willow); check their Facebook page for locations.

Note: We are sad to report that Barillaro recently passed away. You can still find Mieczkowski at craft fairs throughout the year talking about the appropriately named Black Splendor plum-rose water jam they made together this summer.

click to enlarge Clapping Piloncillo Molds Together to Remove The Hardened Sugar Cones - JGARBEE
  • jgarbee
  • Clapping Piloncillo Molds Together to Remove The Hardened Sugar Cones
9. La Zamorana Mexican Candies & Piloncillo

An artisan myth: expensive is always part of the handmade deal. One of the benefits of an artisan succeeding on a multi-generation scale is that handmade products often become more affordable. Consider the family behind La Zamorana, who have been churning out the authentic Mexican candies in a tiny, nondescript East L.A. kitchen since 1957. Founder José Mendez immigrated to Los Angeles from Zamora de Hidalgo in Michoacán, otherwise known as the candy capital of Mexico. Mendez first hit East L.A. with a single street cart full of tarugo (tamarind pulp candies); Today his son, Vicente, and grandchildren run the business.

Other than production scale, not much has changed over the decades. The molds that José carved from large wood blocks are still filled with piloncillo daily (photo above). There's no fancy packaging here; plastic bags and cake rounds have always worked just fine. You can buy nuggets of garnet-hued camote (sweet potato) and candied calabaza (squash) directly from the factory (if you're looking for piloncillo, call ahead; they sell out quickly). Need another excuse to buy more local artisan candy? "Mexico has been exporting candies at really low prices recently because they don't have to follow the regulations we do," says the youngest Mendez, Vince. La Zamorana Candy is available directly from the factory and at several area Hispanic markets such as La Vallarta.

click to enlarge Biltong (Left) and Droewers at European Deluxe - ELINA SHATKIN
  • Elina Shatkin
  • Biltong (Left) and Droewers at European Deluxe
8. European Deluxe South African Style Jerky

How a German artisan with an advanced degree in sausage-making like Gary Traub ends up making South African-style jerky in Beverly Hills is a classic L.A. story of time, place and opportunity. Go back even further in history, and Dutch farmers did all the biltong (Afrikaans for "buttock tongue") and droewors ("dried sausage") curing using locally available meats like ostrich or African antelope. As ostrich is a bit tricky to find in Beverly Hills, Traub cures beef bottom round and, occasionally, when he can get it, farm-raised antelope in cider vinegar, salt and coriander before air-drying them.

It all happens in a tiny kitchen just behind the retail butcher shop that Traub purchased from another German sausage maker, Willie Kossbiel (he taught Traub to make the jerky; a representative from the South African Embassy stopped by more than 30 years ago asking for it). A jerky field trip bonus: Traub's handmade German sausages will also be waiting in the meat case. Biltong and droewers are available at European Deluxe Sausage Kitchen in Beverly Hills.

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