Thursday, December 15, 2011

Artisanal LA Holiday Pop-Up 2011: Pasadena Edition

Three things you need to know before reading this post: I love Artisanal LA - for supporting the community of local, sustainable food producers / vendors and for the lovely edible / food-related surprises they've provided at previous shows (I've been to three).  I dislike Pasadena - it's a city that seems to think it's 'made it', when it's still full of mediocrity.  I am such a fan of the former that I repressed my feelings on the latter in order to support, this past weekend for their holiday pop-up shop.  Oh and a fourth note - any comments below, I say with love, because I want Artisanal LA to thrive and continue to be a strong platform for people to discover talented craftsmen & women who are passionate about their chosen focus.

In contrast to venues for past Artisanal LA shows like Cooper Design Building and Santa Monica Place, this year's venue - Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena - is small and...unpolished (though it's an art gallery), and a bit lackluster. On the positive side, you can see this as 'authentic' and getting back to the 'heart' of community. As a whole, on the negative side, this venue and move away from aesthetics does detract from what Artisanal LA had so successfully done with previous shows, to elevate/showcase local artisans as talented masters of their craft, offering legitimate and actually much better alternatives to mass produced goods - breaking through the often unmerited stereotypes associated with 'garage operations'.

But the venue was not reflective of individual vendor offerings, and I was very excited to see a few fan favorite artisans return to the show, and to check out their impressive / delicious new edibles.

Plush Puffs was back with fun on-the-spot marshmallow toasting stations (tealight burners) - with holiday fav flavors like gingerbread marshmallows.  They also had an eye-catching, giant marshmallow cake (yes, it's all one piece!) on display.  These would make a fun and unique cake for kids of all ages (yep, even those in their thirties...) - they are $23 each and Plush Puffs will take custom flavor orders.
SQIRL had me since last Artisanal LA, where their Nagami Kumquat Chamomile jam changed my perspective on jams forever.  Jams don't have to be sickly sugary, sticky, food coma inducing messes - but can be incredibly refined, nuanced and beautiful translations of the freshest fruits, flowers and herbs that local farms have to offer.  Owner/chef Jessica Koslow creates unique flavor combinations driven by what's in season (so unfortunately I won't be able to get another jar of that crazy delicious translucent gold kumquat chamomile jam for a while...). 

Since the last show, Jessica has found a wide and loyal following - she now supplies Nancy Silverton's (of Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza fame) newly opened Short Order at the Original Farmers Market, AND opened a space of her own in Silverlake!

I fell in love with her latest - Candied Orange Rinds & Wild Fennel ($12).  My mom is into little snacks to go with tea - and the modern, clean designs make these ideal for gift-giving.  And then of course I had to have one for myself.  Other amazing new items: Gravenstein Apple Butter and Blenheim Apricot

I was also happy to see Creme Caramel LA -owner/chef Kristine is another amazing artisan and makes the fluffiest, tastiest, buttery bread puddings.  I brought their bacon bread pudding and apple crumble bread pudding to Thanksgiving dinner and there were audible, delighted moans around the room.  Everybody wanted to know where to get it.

And of course their namesake creme caramels - these have perfect, medium density with light sweet flavors balanced by intense liquid caramel topping.  Kristine is always coming out with new and creative flavors - including green tea white chocolate, and ube maruno! - and for this show they brought their recently debuted Mexican Chocolate Creme Caramel, which has rich chocolate flavors that have a little bit of heat from their blend of spices.

Glad Creme Caramel has also seen success at local farmers markets (Melrose Place Sundays!) and people could get their 'fix' outside of the Artisanal LA shows!

Jenkins Jellies was another returning vendor - its marketing as devilishly delicious as its 'Hell Fire Pepper Jelly', a combination of hot and sweet with its use of habanero peppers in sweet jelly, perfect served with cream cheese on a cracker.

Another great returnee: Cast Iron Gourmet - Rashida's small batch, handmade bacon, Pork Nuts ($6) - corn nuts made with bacon fat - Bacon Crack ($6) - chunks of cooked pork belly packed for snacking - and Bacon Gold ($10) straightup lard that will add amazing gourmet bacon flavors to any dish - were all on hand. 

And it looks like they will be offering "bacon makin class" soon - should be fun!!

So on to the newbies - afterall, a big part of the fun of Artisanal LA is being introduced to new talent and edibles!  My first purchase was at Fruit & Flour, who offered pies of all sizes, from single serving, adorable little flower-shaped pies in flavors like Pear & Cardamom to larger pies (which you can also buy by the slice) like Honey & Persimmon ($4/slice).  I am not normally a fan of the texture of Persimmons, which I find fibrous/powdery...but these slices were smooth, like apples in apple pie but a tiny bit firmer, ever so lightly sweetened with honey, with a delicious buttery, flaky crust. 

They are not at farmers' market or retail yet, but I'm crossing my fingers for them!

Another new vendor I was excited to see is Mother Moo Creamery.  I've been wanting to check them out, but never seemed to find a good time to trek out to their Sierra Madre store - so I was really glad to be able to sample their organic, made daily ice creams at the show!  Salted Chocolate was probably my favorite - though as I arrived late in the day, the ice cream had melted a lot and so I was tasting more for flavor and not for consistency.  Their Corn Flake ice cream was creative and something I definitely want to try at their shop sometime, putting it on the calendar for the new year!

 Culture Club 101 surprised me on several levels.  I'd never heard of a 'food club' beyond those subscribe & get a box of something or other delivered every month ones - but apparently you have to pay membership dues in order to access their products for purchase (I think they said $25 a year). 

Their mission is to promote and educate about the tradition and health benefits of cultured (lacto-fermented) foods, offering lectures and films at their Pasadena location.

With an open mind, I tried their fermented carrots & jalapeno - unexpectedly tasty, even for someone who isn't really a fan of carrots.  The mix of tangy/tart witih spicy, coupled with fresh crunch - was well balanced and would make for a great snack food.  Don't know that I would pay a membership fee - but it was definitely a delicious sample and I hope to see their products available at other events or at farmers market.

Another vendor that, like Jenkins Jellies, was able to back up clever marketing with delicious food - was Earl's Gone Wild.  My favorite bite from them was Earl Jam - jalapeno jelly - the balance of heat and sweet was pitch perfect, the spiciness made its presence known but didn't have a 'burn', the jam overall was sweet. 

They also have all natural "California Barbecue Sauce" and bbq seasonings.

Upstairs above the gallery, Altadena Urban Farmers Market vendors peddled their wares.  Highlights below:
Baker's Mark, a catering company, sampled some of their handcrafted, cane sugar sweetened sodas - Cherry and Sarsaparilla.  I tried the Cherry and loved it - I know I say this a lot but I don't like food/drinks that are sickly sweet, which is why I don't normally like cherry flavored soda, but this one tasted like it was made from real cherries and with a fresh and natural, carefully restrained sweetness.
Jabberwocky Smooth Jerk sampled jamaican jerk and bbq sauces on pork tenderloin and pulled pork.  The jerk sauce was delicious, tasted slow cooked with sophisticated layers, not callously doused in spice.  I first sampled this at Eat Real Fest in Culver City and remembered liking it.
The other thing I loved about their booth: a QR Code 'wall' where you can scan to receive recipe downloads!  Loved that - who said handcrafting artisans can't also be tech savvy?!

Viking Biscotti also had an impressive showing (visually anyways), with reps in nordic garb and biscotti molded into holiday themed icons like trees (planted with paper flags).

Also at the show: Homegirl - you may know Homeboy from local farmers market where mainly breads are sold.  Apparently the non-profit was started by a kind-hearted priest who believed in second chances, saw the opportunity to help reintegrate juveniles and former convicts into society by giving them job training and something to take pride in (a piece of their own business), and invested his own money in it.  With the success of Homeboy, there is now Homegirl.  A truly inspiring example of community support and power of food to bring people together.  In addition to baked goods, Homegirl also offered preserves, teas and spices.

Another highlight of past shows have been the spectacular workshops (e.g. mixology by Matt Biancaniello of Library Bar, whole hog butchery demo by Lindy & Grundy).

This show's workshops were sponsored by the Institute of Domestic Technology, and held in the Annex wing of the art center - namely in their ceramics studio. 

While I wished workshop info posted earlier to enable better planning (I had dinner plans and ended up having to miss Mother Moo Creamery's demo on lemon sorbet making, booooo!) I was happy to be able to attend the Mariposa Creamery Cheese-making one. 

Steve Rudicel, gold-medal award winning cheese-maker, showed us how to make a mold-ripened goat cheese at home.  It was interesting to hear about the science behind cheese making, with the bacterial and enzyme (rennet from cow stomach) interactions needed and how they work to get from milk to wheel of cheese with a fairly precise timeline.  Steve also gave tips on best suppliers of milk available to the public (Summer Hill, Straus).

All in all, an enjoyable afternoon for the low price of $5 (includes tote bag (by Whole Foods) for first 500 pre-sale ticket purchasers, and a KIND almond cashew flax bar).  It wasn't my favorite of the Artisanal LA shows I've attended - the venue (i.e. scale/vibe/energy) and quantity and quality of new vendors & offerings were not as mind-blowing as past shows, and the purchases I left with were mainly from those I already love (and can now buy from elsewhere). Granted, those new to the show and who might not have tried the 'returnee' products probably had a different / eye-opening experience. 

Until next time!


Artisanal LA
Sunday, December 11th 10am-6pm
Armory Center for the Arts
145 N Raymond Ave., Pasadena, CA 91103


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