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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
7. Lemonbird Handmade Jams (and Pickles)
Good food, good design. A timeworn comparison. Yet one that so rarely merges in truly unique ways. Typically, beautiful condiment jar labels give way to independently inspired jams, jellies and pickles inside. Not so with Amy Deaver's farmers market-driven creations. They're in a flavor league of their own; her tomato-vanilla bean jam is simply remarkable spread on goat cheese, everyday cocktail onions pale in comparison to her pickled cucamelons, tiny Mexican sour gherkins that look like miniature watermelons.
We love them even more for the artistic flair given not only to the label, but the contents inside each jar. Deaver has crafted each to look like a miniature (edible) painting. Inside one, a few pistachios look like an ascending brushstroke in a jammy apricot background. Those pickled "cocktail tomatoes," cherry tomatoes in various sizes and hues floating in vinegar, could double as a still life painting with the bed of herbs and spices beneath them. Artisan art at its finest. Lemonbird jams and pickles are available on Etsy, at local shops like Caffe Luxxe in Santa Monica and several craft and food fairs throughout the year (check the Lemonbird website for locations).
6. Meiju Tofu
There are those artisans whose crazy flavor experiments, like adding basil to blueberry jam, turn into a signature product. For those striving to recreate traditional (and deceptively "simple") flavors, hitting on perfection can be a much more frustrating and time consuming process, more so when you're dealing with very few ingredients, as with tofu. Patience is the successful tofu artisan's trump card -- and when the lights go out in your production facility, candles so you can soldier on making zaru tofu (so dubbed for the bamboo basket in which it is traditionally served). The number of products Shogo Kariya and his son, Koki of Meiju Tofu make is limited, all with an even more limited shelf life. And we can certainly make tofu at home (Andrea Nguyen's excellent book, the aptly titled Artisan Tofu, is a great place to start), yet most days, we do not.
That's because the tofu the Kariyas make have a subtle quality that our best home batches do not, a delicate flavor and a texture we haven't quite yet, and probably never will, fully master. These are the reasons that we -- and many local chefs -- buy the Kariya's silky fresh blocks or creamy soft tofu; when we see them tucked in Ray Mukai's tiny refrigerator case at Granada Market, one of our favorite stops after a Little Osaka restaurant romp, we always tuck one in our basket. Meiju Tofu sells tofu to the public Monday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday (mornings only; Call ahead; they often sell out). You can also find Meiju Tofu at several Japanese specialty markets.
5. Nory Locum Turkish Delight
Armenian candy maker Armand Sahakian spends his days in a powdered-sugar dusted San Fernando Valley candy workshop, watching over the sugar syrup bubbling in giant copper caldrons that will soon become Turkish delight. It's a beautiful place, a factory with the charm of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia fantasies. Sahakian, who was born in Lebanon and raised in Pasadena, grew up eating the little chewy squares flavored with rosewater, citrusy bergamot oil or other fruit flavors. There are nut versions too (our favorite: pistachio), all poured into wooden trays to cool, then dusted with powdered sugar and sliced into squares. Sahakian trained to be a cobbler like his father, but later decided he was more at home in the kitchen. The candy factory's former owner, Dickran Jibilian, taught him how to make gelée-like locum (Turkish delight) batch-by-batch (Jibilian in turn learned from Nory Hovagimian, an Armenian immigrant from Romania, who first opened Nory Locum).
Sahakian has replaced the walk-up storefront of Jibilian and Hovagimian's era with online ordering, a necessity in today's traffic-laden times. And simply as a matter of Sahakian's own time management; he makes all the candy himself, with only a handful of employees to help cut, package and ship them. You won't find Nory Locum candy at craft fairs or farmer's markets. Not because Sahakian doesn't want to be there; he loves to talk about candy making and hand over samples. He just has pounds of powdered sugar to get through. Nory Locum Turkish delight is available online, at several small Middle Eastern grocery stores.
4. Brassica and Brine Sauerkraut & Pickles
Jordan "Uri" Laio's Brassica and Brine website describes his products as "organic, traditional, wild-fermented foods." Read on, and promises of the health benefits with each life-altering spoonful follow the buzzwords. But strip away the health claims, and this is simply exceptionally good, naturally fermented sauerkraut -- "brassica" is the Latin term for sauerkraut. Laio is skilled at merging traditional pickling techniques with unexpected flavors (a talent he shares with Farmhouse Culture's Kathryn Lukas up in Santa Cruz). We also love the pay-it-forward model to which so many artisans -- particularly fermenters, it seems -- adhere. Laio offers classes throughout the year to explore your own lacto-fermentation potential.
Flavors vary depending on what organic produce is available. Currently, Liao makes a "Four Thieves" kraut with a mix of lavender, sage, rosemary and thyme (the traditional European mixture was believed to ward off the plague), a caraway and juniper berry-spiced sauerkraut based on the German classic, and his take on kimchi. The contents bubble and burp as you open them -- a reminder of the naturally fermented work that went into each jar. Available at the Altadena Urban Farmers Market and Farmshop.
3. Michel Cordon Bleu Smoked Fish
We've already gone on a (tiny) kitchen tour of the Michel Cordon Bleu factory, and we've crowned Michel Blanchet's smoked fish the best. But when even the most notoriously picky chefs like Joël Robuchon regularly order Blanchet's fish, we can't leave him off the list simple because we've already praised his Idaho trout with just enough fresh dill to balance the hickory-smoked flavor. You'll find the chef at his small Leimert Park fish factory every morning, lining up Coho salmon filets in a slicer. "You can't get them this thin if you slice it by hand," he says, holding up an almost tissue paper-thin slice.
The fish comes in nondescript packaging that is hardly Etsy worthy, likely the reason Blanchet's wares rarely show up in glossy magazine pages. But taste that delicately smoked salmon again; there's a fresh flavor that belies those hours spent in the smoker. There is clearly a chef behind these artisan stoves. Michel Cordon Bleu smoked fish is available at Surfas and McCall's Meat and Fish.
2. Chocovivo Mexican-Style Chocolate
In L.A., we are fortunate to have our share of notable artisan chocolatiers. Pastry chefs like Yvan Valentin have long excelled at making the classic French truffles of his homeland (and this time of year. Buche de Noël cakes); younger artisan chocolatiers like Ococoa's Diana Malouf are introducing new chocolate flavor combinations (she makes great nut butter-filled cups inspired by her Middle Eastern heritage). And then there's Patricia Tsai. In an interview with Squid Ink, Tsai recalls how she had her heart set on making stone-ground Mexican chocolate like those that Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo imports from a small women's cooperative in Mexico.
Chocovivo is a remarkable artisan story of perseverance, un-tempered by Western customer expectations. On first bite, the grainy texture of Tsai's bars can be shocking. But take another bite. The flavor is subtly nuanced, like a really good cup of coffee layered with the flavor of freshly roasted beans. An acquired taste, certainly. But one worth acquiring. Chocovivo is in the process of moving to a new location in Culver City that will open in early 2013. In the meantime, you can find their chocolates at Stronghold in Venice.
1. Little Flower Candy Company Caramels
Former restaurant pastry chef Christine Moore launched her business with sea salt caramels more than twelve years ago; today, her candy line has expanded to include other sweets like coffee-flavored marshmallows. You probably know the rest of the story. A Pasadena bakery/café followed, and she recently released her first cookbook (read the book's introduction and she will remind you that starting an artisan food business is hardly easy, more so when facing life's daily adversities). One might predict that Jessica Koslow of Sqirl, the artisan jam maker with an equally sharp business eye, is well on her way to a similar Hollywood cookbook ending.
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But the catalyst for Moore's business is the reason she tops our best-of list. Those caramels, a recipe Moore developed while reminiscing about her pastry apprenticeship days in Brittany, are simply divine -- perhaps the perfect marriage of caramelized sugar, butter and sea salt on this side of the Atlantic. That she has parlayed each chewy, yet still delicate, little square into a much larger business without affecting their hand-made quality epitomizes the American artisan dream. Little Flower Candy Company sea salt caramels are available online and at Little Flower in Pasadena.
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