Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Photo Essay: Lambing Season at Apricot Lane Farms

I'd eaten some produce from Apricot Lane Farms while dining at Chef Laurent Quenioux's maison.

So, naturally, I wanted to see where those fruits and vegetables had come from.

After all, I've spent a lifetime eating anonymous food—and that's long enough.

Besides, considering the fact that agriculture is one of the top (if not the top) industries in California...

...I've got plenty of opportunity to eat local...

...and meet my local farmers.

Apricot Lane in Moorpark, just inside the Ventura County line, is probably a real-life version of the romanticized vision that most people have of farms, farmers, and farming.

But unfortunately, most farming the U.S. today has become industrialized—and those "factory farms" are no better and no more humane than the assembly lines that manufacture cars or package bologna.

At Apricot Lane, it's encouraging to see that the livestock are part of the overall ecosystem of the farm. The Dorper lambs stay with the ewes, and together they graze the various pastures, with plenty of space to roam.

All the while, they're fertilizing the soil with their poop.

Fortunately, with 200-some-odd acres at their disposal, they've got plenty of pasture to choose from, without danger of overgrazing any of it. In their constant rotations, they graze a third of the grass, trample another third of it, and leave the final third behind as they move onto the next.

What began as a lemon and avocado orchard and has evolved to produce 75 varieties of fruit, from autumn gold navel oranges, grapefruit, and kumquats to cherries and cherimoya.

Although Farmers Molly and John report that this plot wasn't the most fertile at the beginning...

...seven years of TLC, biodynamic agricultural practices, and raising animals with jobs to do seem to have transformed it into verdant wonderland.

When I visited in March of this year, it was unseasonably hot and the fruit trees were already blooming...

...the fuzzy tropic snow peaches just starting to peek their heads out of their branches.

A flock of Khaki Campbell ducks were hard at work, tasked with eating the snails that like to crawl up the tall stalks of grass and latch onto the low-hanging branches of the citrus trees.

A small herd of grass-fed Scottish Highland cattle were doing what cows do—grazing and depositing manure, which the farm uses in its compost.

The chickens were doing fowl things—clucking and squawking and prancing about—surrounded by singing and fluttering red-winged blackbirds under the shade of  tree next to the vegetable garden.

The egg-laying varieties of hens—the Rhode Island Reds, Easter Eggers, Olive Eggers, Barred Plymouth Rocks, Blue Andalusians, Cream Legbars, Black Copper Marans, and Cuckoo Marans—forage for and snack on bugs and maggots, which apparently makes the antibiotic-free, soy-free, free-range eggs even more delicious.

I don't know if that's the reason why the yolks were so orangey and jammy, but I was glad to nab a mixed, multicolored carton for a little taste-testing at home.

I don't think I can ever buy anonymous eggs again.

Related Posts:
Kidding Season
Photo Essay: Farming at the LA County Fairgrounds
Photo Essay: Wine Dinner in the Garden
Photo Essay: The Ranch That Built An Empire of Oranges

Monday, April 23, 2018

Sunset, Sunrise in the Mountain Empire

I'd planned on getting to the Mountain Empire a little earlier in the day to do some exploring—but since things rarely go as planned, I didn't end up leaving the LA area (Glendale, instead of Beverly Hills) until 3 p.m. on Saturday, making my arrival time in Potrero dangerously close to sunset.

I hustled as fast as I could in weekend traffic, stopping only for gas and snacks-to-go and foregoing dinner altogether—and as it was, I was heading up the pass just as the sun was dipping behind the mountain.

I was staying at a ranch of sorts, having rented a tipis at the end of a dirt road that turns off just before the county park and the local Christmas tree farm (a.k.a. the Rancho Noel). I thought I'd arrive and get situated and then leave again to forage for food, but the dirt road drive up through the "pasture land" was harrowing enough to make me want to stay and accept my hosts' offer to share burritos they'd gotten from Mexico earlier that day.

"You're brave," my host said when he realized I was the one staying in the smaller of his two tipis. I couldn't understand why, since there was a real bed in there, just like the tipis I'd stayed in before.

But I suppose to people who are used to having a door that locks and room service at their beck and call, a mere flap and just some solar lights is pretty adventurous.

I'd brought my headlamp from Ukraine so I could read in bed, but I found its light attracted too many bugs for my taste, so I simply went to bed early.

It was cloudy, so I didn't get to see the stars I was hoping for (much less the Lyrid meteor shower that was supposed to occur that night). But I did get to see both the sunset and the following sunrise, a rare treat for my current schedule and something I find so incredibly healing.

I slept fitfully on a bed whose frame had collapsed on one end, leaving me at a tilt and sliding down somewhat thanks to the plastic sleeve on the mattress. At some point, a cat walked into my tent with a "meow," just enough to wake me up and greet him with a "kitty!" and then fall back to sleep when he meandered back out. I don't think I dreamed that, though I suppose it's possible.)

I set my alarm for 6 in the morning, a few minutes before sunrise, but I ended up waking up on my own before it even sounded. I had a big day ahead and, being four hours from home in an area I hadn't visited in a decade, I wanted to make the most of it.

I'd actually expected my tipi to be visited by the guinea rooster I'd heard about the night before and that I'd heard calling throughout the night—with no hen to silence him—but it wasn't until the next morning that I spotted him, when he positioned himself in front of the nose of my car and wouldn't move.

With a few consoling expressions of "hey baby" and a few strokes of his back feathers, I either irritated or excited him enough to peck at my hand and not want to leave me alone. He encircled my car a few times before I could finally outrun him without running him over.

And then as though the early morning hadn't already been magical enough, I happened across a turkey vulture perched on a fencepost while I was on my way out of town, just long enough for me to snap a photo and watch it spread its massive wings and fly away.

And then I was back on the 94 East, just a stone's throw from Tecate, ready to start the day without breakfast, looking to squeeze in as much adventure as I could before heading home to my own bed and my own cat to wake me up in the middle of the night.

Related Posts:
Sunrising the Salton Sea and Its Forever Folly
Sleeping Under the Stars
A Little Fall of Rain

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Breathing New Life Into the Eyesores of Downtown LA

They say that the "greenest" building is one that's already been built.

Because no matter how high of a LEED standard a new structure adheres to, the environmental impact of building it from scratch is far greater than reusing an extant one that might be less energy efficient.

Besides, when it comes to interior design—at least in LA—everything old is new again.

Why build something new, just to make it look old? (See also: all of our  newly constructed "Art Deco" and "speakeasy"-style bars and nightclubs.)

And yet so many buildings stand vacant for so long (something that's particularly painful when you see so many homeless camped out outside of them, in a time when we're experiencing a major housing shortage).

The Giannini Building, for example, had become an eyesore at the corner of Olive and 7th Street in Downtown Los Angeles, standing vacant for nearly two decades.

Formerly the Bank of Italy headquarters (named after its founder, Amadeo Giannini), the palatial, 12-story high-rise was dedicated in 1923 and opened to much fanfare—thanks in no small part to the neoclassical design by Morgan, Walls & Clements. At the time, Bank of Italy was the largest bank in the West (and would become Bank of America in 1930).

Its founder pioneered the idea that banking was for regular folk and not just the rich. So, the bank pursued potential customers whose banking potential had been heretofore underestimated—namely, women and children—to fill its 12,000 safety deposit boxes.

The main vault door is one of the only significant features of the opulent bank building that remains.

Weighing 50 tons, it now protects a small lounge area...

...and the public restrooms.

Upstairs, the former offices had already been gutted, leaving little of historical value to be preserved when the Sydell Group took over the building (with some help from billionaire investor Ron Burkle) and renovated it into the NoMad Hotel Los Angeles.

The rooms have been outfitted with vintage-inspired furnishings and decor (as have the public areas like the lobby and the Mezzanine restaurant). However, unlike Giannini's original vision for it, this building is no longer for ordinary people with just a little bit of money to sock away. Rooms start at $280/night ($320/night if you want the nice bathtub) and go as high as $800/night for a corner suite.

The rooftop bar has just opened up to the public...

...though the pool is still reserved for guests of the hotel.

Besides the sweeping views of Downtown LA, the rooftop also offers a little bit of Italy in the form of Orcus, god of the underworld. The statue at the far end of the pool is a replica of one found in the  16th century "sacred grove," Sacro Bosco, in northern Italy.

Up there, you can also get a good look at the Italiante cornice...

...which, though original to the building, also underwent some recent restoration work (as did the terra-cotta panels on the building exterior, some of which had to be replaced).

The Sydell Group wasn't satisfied with reinvigorating just one historic DTLA building by converting it into a fancy hotel—it also set its sights on yet another infamous eyesore, the Commercial Exchange Building.

Built in 1924, it, too, had stood vacant and languishing for 20 or so years...

...despite having a rich history, a solid architectural pedigree, and one of the tallest neon blade signs in LA.

Designed by Walker & Eisen (known also for their work on the Taft Building in Hollywood, the Fine Arts Building, the Oviatt Building, and Hotel Normandie), the 13-story, Beaux Arts-style building actually retained a lot of its original character, despite its extended vacancy.

A lot of original decorative features had been boarded up over the years...

...and were revealed when restoration work (which frequently means excavation) began.

And those original decorative features at the storefront level—particularly a long-hidden medallion over a doorway—were retained as the Commercial Exchange Building transformed into the Freehand Hotel.

In fact, according to preservation guidelines, they had to be saved—and, unlike its neighbor a block away, the interior of the Commercial Exchange Building was largely intact.

That means you'll see original coffered ceilings and marble stairways...

...as well as more original tile, which has been seamlessly integrated with new design motifs.

Upstairs, the former offices—including one once occupied by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs—have been converted into either traditional hotel rooms or shared, bunk-style hostel rooms.

Unlike the NoMad, the Freehand does welcome a more cost-conscious customer—particularly international travelers.

And while the Freehand embraces the style of "Old Downtown," it also brings the experience of staying there into the 21st century—with a mural that was painted by the art collective Cyrcle and that's only visible from certain guest rooms.

Anyone, however, is welcome to dine or drink at one of the Freehand's many establishments, both in the lobby (at the Exchange Restaurant) and on the roof (at Broken Shaker).

As with the NoMad, the pool is for hotel/hostel guests only, but the view is for everybody.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Biggest Department Store in the West, Subdivided
Photo Essay: The Hotel Californian Neon Comes Back Home
Photo Essay: Farmers and Merchants, the Old Bank with Big Plans