Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Where to Find the Tastiest Local Chocolate in SoCal (from KCET)

My latest for KCET delves into the world of SoCal chocolate culture. And since I haven't written much about that here, I thought I would excerpt some photos and writing from my chocolatey research here.

As I write in the article, which appears on, you don't need to travel to Europe or even Hershey, Pennsylvania to get your chocolate fix directly from an authentic chocolate maker. There's plenty right here in Southern California.

For instance, taking a bite of the dark chocolates at Chocovivo – which sources all its cacao beans from a farm in Tabasco, Mexico – is like tasting the nectar of the Mayan gods.

Ranging from 65% to 100% cacao pure bars to blended bars that include Mayan cinnamon and spices, nuts, fruit, sea salt, and spices (like black peppercorn), you can try them all at the tasting counter – your choice of flights of three, six, or all of the varieties available for sale in full-sized bars.

Chocolatier Jean-Michel Carré spent 40-some-odd years as a French chef at his own restaurant in France – and now he brings that haute cuisine sensibility to his chocolate-making at his own shoppe, Chocolats du Cali Bressan, in Carpinteria.

Carré runs the venture with his California-born wife Jill, spending much of his time in the kitchen to focus on creating milk, dark, and white chocolate truffles and bonbons. Each flavor profile is well balanced with the addition of citrus, mint, rum, and more. And while his French roots remain strong – “Cali Bressan” is a tip-of-the-hat to the Bresse area of Provence – Carré also incorporates ingredients from all over the world, like curry and cardamom.

At LA's Letterpress Chocolate right now, you can taste 70% dark chocolates made from beans sourced from various cacao-growing regions around the world—including Ecuador, Ghana, Costa Rica, Belize, the Ucayali region of Peru, and so on.

Soon enough, though, you’ll be able to taste Letterpress chocolate bars made from its own beans, as it has invested in own sustainable cacao farm, Guatemala's Izabal Agroforest.

At the helm of Twenty-Four Blackbirds  in Santa Barbara,is founder Mike Orlando, raised to grow plants, trained as a marine biologist and self-taught machine-tinkerer and candyman. Much of the equipment used in the factory was designed or even built by Orlando, including those for roasting the beans and cracking and winnowing the shells.

In the self-guided tasting section of the boutique, you can serve yourself small portions of dark chocolate whose bean origins range from the Dominican Republic and Belize to Tanzania and Madagascar.

In addition to hand-wrapped bars, also for sale in a glass case are beautifully decorated truffles, each hand-painted with colored cocoa butter, as iridescent and eye-catching as precious gems.

With a factory store located in the Brentwood neighborhood, Compartés has been making chocolate in L.A. since 1950 – but what it offers now under the leadership of upstart owner Jonathan Grahm isn’t your grandmother’s candy bar.

What was once a favorite of Marilyn, Frank, and Elvis has flipped Hollywood glamour on its head – with Grahm mixing in pretzels, scones, doughnuts, brownies, potato chips, and even kale.

Whether you are a newbie nibbler or a confection connoisseur, SoCal’s chocolate shops are constantly looking for ways to surprise, enlighten, and seduce you – one bean at a time.

And these are five of the best places in SoCal to indulge your sweet tooth and embrace the savory side of chocolate in bean, bar, bonbon, and beverage forms.

To read the full article on the KCET website, click here

Related Post:
Photo Essay: Crafting Cacao Under the Influence of a Printing Press
Photo Essay: From Bean to Bar at a Chocolate Factory
Farm to Fork? Bean to Bar? This Is Bean to Brew.
Photo Essay: How Brooklyn Does Bourbon and Chocolate Bars

Monday, February 11, 2019

R.I.P. Robert Winter, LA Architecture's "Bungalow Bob" (1924-2019)

Sometimes it's kismet when people come into your life by surprise.

I've tried to meet many a star of stage, screen, and song, and I've almost always been disappointed.

But Bob Winter was a different sort of celebrity—a beloved figure in Los Angeles as an architecture historian and academic.

I didn't really understand that, though, when I first encountered Professor Winter (faculty at Occidental College 1963-1994). I only knew him as "Bungalow Bob."

Photo: Bob Winter, 2019  (Angel City Press, via Facebook)

I only met him once, but he made a huge impression on me. And so, upon his recent passing at the age of 94—just after the publication of the sixth edition of the Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles he co-authored—I thought I'd share my story in tribute to him.

Sometime last year, I'd signed up for a tour of the periphery of the Bungalow Heaven district of Pasadena, California, with the promise of getting inside the infamous bungalow built and once occupied by ceramicist and tilemaker Ernest Batchelder. Completed in 1910 just a stone's throw from the lower portion of Pasadena's dry river, the Arroyo Seco, the house is probably the biggest bungalow in the area, appearing more like a cross between a Swiss chalet and a Craftsman cabin in the woods, covered in cedar shakes (some original).

It's unmistakably the work of Batchelder, with his tiles embedded in the walkway out front, throughout the backyard, and both the exterior and interior of the house itself.

Given his residence, which he'd occupied since 1972, Bob had become a de facto Batchelder expert—and even donated several Batchelder tiles (and accompanying archives) to the Pasadena Museum of History and curated the "Batchelder: Tilemaker" exhibit at the museum in its 2016-7 season.

What I didn't fully understand when I first met Bob was that he was an expert a a lot of LA architecture, including the Arts and Crafts movement he helped Angelenos (who he once considered "heathens") gain a new appreciation for. At the time of my visit, the fifth edition of his LA architectural guide could be found on the coffee tables and nightstands of many an LA-based journalist, historian, and architectural looky-loo—including my own, though I hadn't fully delved into the pages beyond its blue cover by the time I crossed the threshold of Bob's front door.

We all gathered in his dimly lit, wood-paneled living room, which is a half-story higher than the adjacent room, and he regaled us with stories, giving us a glimpse into his charm and wit. It was clear that he had a great sense of humor—and every time he said something funny, he'd smack the arm of the rollator he was seated upon as though slapping his own knee in utter glee.

I immediately fell in love with him, but I was eager to explore the rest of the historic property, too. So, I went outside to examine the chimney...

...with its inlaid Batchelder tile...

...and the kiln (which Bob insists Batchelder would've pronounced "kill," dropping the "n")...

...where Batchelder himself had fired up so many tiles for Greene and Greene...

...and other architectural clients, both near and far.

As Bob described in the nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places that he prepared, the backyard serves as a kind of "museum of ideas" for Batchelder's process... well as a gallery of some of his works.

It also exhibits the influence of his wife, Alice Coleman, founder of the Coleman Chamber Music concerts.

But as it turns out, I spent too much time outside, at the tile fountain...

...and the pet cemetery under the old oak, with its tributes to Wispy and Shadow ("a master of his own universe").

I planned on going back inside the house to spend more time with Bob and thank him for his hospitality—but once all the photos were taken and the socializing with fellow tour attendees was done, it was too late. Bob was tired and done. He didn't entertain visitors much anymore, and we'd tuckered him out.

I never got to see him again. But he will be in my heart—and on my bookshelf—for eternity.

is out now, from Angel City Press.

Related Post:
Photo Essay: The Gamble House, Pasadena (Updated for 2017)

Friday, February 8, 2019

In Praise of the Harpsichord, and the Bird Feathers That Play Them

Never in my life did I ever think, "I want to play the harpsichord."

My Grammy was a piano teacher and, until her death in 1985, she taught me to love the percussive banging on keys on hammers on strings as I played the upright in her living room.

In fact I'd only heard the music that comes out of harpsichords—and hadn't seen one up close, much less played one—until just a couple of weeks ago, when I visited Curtis Berak's studio in Downtown LA.

Everybody's got a claim to fame in Hollywood—and Berak is the harpsichord guy, the one who can tune vintage and new ones as well as build his own, even faithful reproductions of antique ones that are considered pretty near perfect.

I wondered what the bag of feathers was for—and it turns out that the traditional manufacture of a harpsichord includes the quill of a raven's wing, used to pluck the strings (rather than hammer on them, like a piano). While many modern makers have replaced the quills with plastic, Berak can make do with feathers from our resident—and abundant—populations of Canadian geese.

And so he's got one of the most faithful Neopolitan-style harpsichords you can find in the Southland—making this and others in his collection in high demand for movie and TV shoots, as well as musical performances and music videos (including Alicia Keys).

The harpsichord, of course, predates the piano—having emerged in the Renaissance period of the 15th century and endured throughout the Baroque period, eventually being eclipsed by the piano.

I that transition from string to percussion, instrument makers somehow dropped their outward expressions of devotion—references to angels and the like—as well as the ornate decoration of the sound cabinet, with birds and flowers having been painted on the surfaces behind the strings.

The Flemish models of harpsichords—particularly those made by the Ruckers family—painted to look like marble and resemble a coffin.

These were the most premium harpsichords of the time—as Berak says, the Stradivarius of the harpsichord—but they were not perfect. The theory was that nothing made by man could be perfect, otherwise it was the devil's work. Because Soli Deo gloria—only God is glory.

The harpsichord relayed a message—namely, that the player is transient, the music he plays is transient, and the instrument itself is transient.

And, in fact, each note played on the harpsichord feels too short. There's no sustain pedal. There are no pedals at all.

But pressing each and every harpsichord key—across two parallel keyboards, no less—feels ever so much more satisfying than tickling the ivories ever did.

So goes the glory of the world, or Sic transit gloria mundi. It's nice while it lasts.

Related Posts:
Inside the Belly: Steinway & Sons Piano Factory Tour
Photo Essay: Taylor Guitars Factory Tour

Monday, January 28, 2019

Photo Essay: These Towers That Bend, But Never Break

Photo: Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Visiting Watts Towers was one of the first touristy things I did after moving to LA in 2011. I didn't know a thing about folk art then, and I didn't exactly understand the appeal of these sky-piercing spires.

circa 2011

I didn't think they were very pretty up close. At least, not from the sidewalk level.

circa 2011

Having driven past them and witnessed their shape-shifting firsthand many times over the last eight years, I'd begun to get it. Especially after brushing up on folk art and learning a thing or two about mosaic tile and glasswork.

circa 2011

By the time I was really itching to go back, Watts Towers had closed for restoration, leaving the gate locked and the site's admirers out in the cold.

circa 2011

Maybe Simon Rodia never intended tourists to wander under the towers he created from 1921 to 1954. After all, though it's now a state park, this was the Italian immigrant's private property, where he worked and slept. (His house unfortunately burned down in 1955 and will not be rebulit.)

circa 2011

Maybe he only ever meant people to see it from afar, in the distance—a beacon like the Eiffel Tower in the non-existent LA skyline. Or maybe he only knew what the towers looked like from his own eye level as he worked on it, having climbed up the edifice to the top as though he were on a set of monkeybars in his backyard.

Then again, he called his creation Nuestro Pueblo ("Our Town"), which suggests that he didn't build the towers just for himself. Besides, he reportedly used to let kids climb the towers.

Last week, I got to see the Towers as Rodia saw them—up close, at their peaks—and I gasped at their beauty.

I strapped on a hard hat (courtesy of Western Chapter of the Association for Preservation Technology) and embarked on a tour led by restoration project manager Dr. Mark Gilberg, director of the Booth Conservation Center at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

He's become intimately familiar with the found materials that Rodia used in the construction of Watts Towers—not only to ornament it, but to also fill the bases of the towers.

Though you can see Malibu tile (Rodia worked at Malibu Potteries for a time), Gladding-McBean, Batchelder, Bauer Pottery, Fiestaware, Metlox, Catalina pottery, and all sorts of other ceramics, porcelain, china... well as bottles, insulators, and seashells of varying species (from mussels to clams and other bivalves)...

... apparently what you can't see under the buttresses, inside of the platforms and other structures (like the "wedding cake" and the "Ship of Marco Polo") includes rubble, sand, and pretty much anything else you can think of.

And Rodia poured concrete on top of it all.

Though Rodia’s larger-than-life sculptures had once been condemned and ordered for demolition, they were saved in the late 1950s when they withstood a stress test of a 10,000-pound load (equivalent to that of a full-blown hurricane).

That's not to say, however, that they haven't cracked. Or that they don't tilt with the wind—or lean away from the sun.

But that didn't keep us from climbing three stories up the scaffolding to look at the towers—two measuring nearly 100 feet tall—for ourselves.

Dr. Gilberg says that most of the actual restoration work the LACMA team is doing is over the patchwork done previously by California State Parks in the 1980s (mostly because the failure rate of repairs to concrete is "unacceptably high").

Fortunately, they haven't found a lot of new damage. At least, not that they can tell.

Then again, unlike a traditional building, there are no blueprints for Watts Towers. No one alive would remember Watts without the towers, before they were built.

So, quite a bit of detective work has gone into the rhyme and reason behind various shapes and features—whether decorative or infrastructural. (The rings that encircle the towers are probably both.)

There were some water features included on the ground level—including a fish pond at the North Wall—but they've long dried up, and documentation is scarce.

A lot of the piecing together necessary for the conservation of the towers is much like the assemblage of shards of broken colored glass and mirror, dishes, and teacups.

Sometimes you only get a fraction of the entire picture.

But together, all those fragments seem to make something cohesive that works.

In addition to filling the fissures with mortar, sharp edges will be filed down and everything will eventually be sealed to make it more watertight than it's ever been before. (When Rodia reinforced the concrete, it wasn't with solid rebar, but metal tubes that created a hidden system of plumbing that eventually self-destructed when water collected and corroded everything that sat in it.)

Other mysteries still abound—like whether there's a hidden fortune behind any of those broken pieces or if Rodia's wife is buried somewhere in the cement.

No evidence of either has been found. But that doesn't mean they don't exist. We're still learning a lot about Watts Towers.

"Their actual presence is testimony to a genuinely original creative spirit." 
—Reyner Banham, The Architecture of Four Ecologies

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: A Shrine of Sacred Garbage
Photo Essay: A Curious Collection of Castoffs as Craft