How Great Thou Art

2011 Artisinal LA Spring Show Santa Monica, California

Entrance to the 2011 Artisanal LA Spring Show

Entrance to the 2011 Artisanal LA Spring Show

Artisanal LA is the ulitimate gathering of local vendors of handmade and sustainable products having to do with good food, and at the Spring 2011 event the team that put the show together kicked it up a notch with new spacious quarters atop the gleaming new Santa Monica Place. The space was so new, in fact that vendors loading in were greeted by the smell of fresh paint, which was dissipated early on by the use of giant exhaust fans at both open exits. By mid-morning the smell of paint was replaced by the unmistakable bacon pig perfume wafting from the booth of perennial favorites Cast Iron Gourmet and the smell of burnt marshmallows from the roast 'em yourself offerings at Plush Puffs Gourmet Marshmallows. As with the Fall 2010 show you could easily wear out a decent pair of walking shoes unless you paced yourself by taking in the workshops, demos and discussions held throughout the weekend. Walking through the booths was like grazing on a Saturday at Austin's Central Market - whether or not you purchased any of the freshly crafted food available, you were going to end up more stuffed than a guitar-playing mariachi toad.
Jill Flomenhoff of Bangers and Smashed goes Austin Powers with her potato creations

Jill Flomenhoff of Bangers and Smashed goes Austin Powers with her potato creations

Some of the vendors from the fall show brought their A-game to Artisanal LA; Bangers & Smashed Gourmet Mashed Potatoes' booth was done up in  Austin Powers chic with Jill Flomenhoff sporting a gogo Union Jack outfit and even a model of the Shaguar under glass. When I last wrote about their potatoes I had noted that the Garlic and Sour Cream smashed was a little lean in the garlic department, but the bite I sampled at the show tasted like they were just yanked out of the ground in Gilroy.  The aforementioned Cast Iron Gourmet resurrected their bacon trail mix which was still fresh, natural and laden with sweet and smoky bacon flavor. All Jarred Up returned with their pies in a jar, a wacky concept to be sure but a novel idea for keeping their flaky and rich pies fresh. I couldn't resist the urge to try their grape pie (which tasted like a sweet wine tart).
Does that not look delicious (the ice cream sandwich)?

Does that not look delicious (the ice cream sandwich)?

I discovered one of the vendors (Beachy Cream) that I somehow missed from the last show who attracted attention by having "cigarette girls" in vintage bathing suits bring attendees back to their beach umbrella ice cream cart. Owner Ann Ryan creates all-natural ice cream sandwiches made from her grandmother's recipes, and although they have typically been selling their cookie-based confections from a portable cart or at local restaurants and shops , they will be offering the treats at the soon-to-open The Market at Santa Monica Place. I tried their signature best-seller, the Ginger Wipe Out, featuring ginger-flavored ice cream wedged between two molasses cookies; unwrapping the ice cream and bringing it to my face brought an aroma that smelled like your grandma's kichen on baking day and the taste was creamy, spicy bliss.
Handmade chocolates from LArtisan Du Chocolat

Handmade chocolates from LArtisan Du Chocolat

I approached several of the chocolatiers with caution; my past experiences with chocolate have been less than enjoyable (I had a chocolate-covered cricket that used substandard cocolate, leading me to prefer the cricket). Nothing can ruin a good dining experience for me faster than confections prepared with "Easter bunny chocolate", so I prepared myself for the worst when offered samples. AF2 Chocolatiers had simple flavored fudge squares wrapped in colorful foil that melted in a cocoa-y blob; Masala Chocolates had impossibly delicious vegan chocolates such as the Lavender Orange-Berry Lust, a flavor-concentrated delight that featured essense of lavender, blueberries and orange. L'Artisan du Chocolate had ornately decorated squares of chocolate that looked like collectible game pieces; the powerful Aztec featured apricot and chili and although I enjoyed it immensley, I felt bad for eating such a delicate piece of art. I don't know if I should be grateful that they converted me to a chocolate journeyman or resentful that I'm probably going to have to stare down another Cadbury egg.
Regina Castaneda hands me her signature Pork Bar-B-Cake

Regina Castaneda hands me her signature Pork Bar-B-Cake

Chef Christian Page's fledgeling Daily Dose prepared sandwiches amongst revolution imagery (think Che Guevara or Mao Tse Tung as a chimpanzee) with fresh, flavorful ingredients; I went vegetarian with their aptly-titled The Believer, This creation was stuffed with roasted vegetables and  creamy squash topped with burata and a pistachio pesto that looked and tasted like an autumn afternoon, and I couldn't resist going back to the booth to tell them that "they made me a Believer". The double-take award undoubtedly goes to Simone B. Catering who lured people into their booth with Chef Regina Casteneda's signature dish - the moist, muffiny Pork Bar-B-Cake. This is the stuff of visions dancing in the heads of pitmasters on Christmas Eve; Chef Casteneda starts with a buttermilk buscuit cupcake which is topped with a generous ladle of BBQ pulled pork and laced with pepperjack and Cheddar cheeses. This porcine snowball was so popular there were people paying in advance to reserve one. The savory pork complemented the seeetness of the cupcake, which absorbed the tangy sauce like a redneck sponge. Green growers, farmers and ranchers abounded - I spent some time speaking with Julian Pearce of Soledad Goats whose specialty is goat cheese. The fresh fromage was the perfect foil for the orange marmalade they were smearing on crostini, and I asked if they sold goat meat in addition to the cheese, but the farm has a no-kill policy, letting each goat live out their golden years frolicking in the green pastures of Mojave. I wondered about the health benefits of drinking goat's milk, but I discovered that it is a felony to sell goat's milk in California (although once he started drinking it, he has never gone back to the bovine variety).
James and Gene Bautista (Beat Ventriloquists) provide music for Artisinal LA

James and Gene Bautista (Beat Ventriloquists) provide music for Artisinal LA

Artisinal LA just gets bigger and better and is the perfect opportunity to meet artisan food industry folks and sample their unique creations as well as being kid-friendly. The only dilemna you may be faced with is whether to eat your purchase or put it in a gallery. Links to participating vendor's sites available on Artisinal LA's web site

GALLERY: See images from Val's visit to the 2011 Artisinal LA Spring Show in Santa Monica, California

NOTE: Admission to Artisinal L.A. was waived in exchange for volunteering at the event.
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