Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Photo Essay: The Arboretum After Dark, Lit By a Forest of Lanterns

It's too early for Chinese New Year, which will land on February 5 next year.

But the Chinese lanterns of the Moonlight Forest Lantern Art Festival descended upon the Los Angeles Arboretum in Arcadia a couple months early—right before Halloween.

And it's running through the Christmas season until right after the Western New Year of the Gregorian calendar.

There's nothing about the Terracotta Army that evokes Santa or his sleigh...

...and the beast who lights the darkened pathways is a dragon, not a reindeer.

The only ornaments hanging are red, tasseled lanterns.

Fish of Abundance

And yet the parade float-sized installations—dozens of them spread out over a mile in the botanic garden—are both whimsical and festive, two qualities that are perfect for this time of year. 

And the symbolism of Chinese New Year are pretty much the same as what's on our minds as the year wraps up—prosperity, good fortune, well wishes, and such.

It's a good omen for a kylin (a.k.a. qilin, the dragon-headed lion) to cross your path.

Parrots are the bearers of good news (which is comforting to anyone who's been woken up by one of our wild flocks screeching).

The peacock is the all-seeing protector—and, in tribute to the peafowl flock (200+-strong) that roams the grounds of the Arboretum, there are two large peacock displays at Moonlight Forest (and one peacock gate).

Swans bring light and sunshine to our dark days...

...and owls ward off evil spirits.

People often use figures of owls as a talisman.

Birds in general are thought to represent the sky and therefore the heavens.

But the Moonlight Forest is also a place for having fun for the sake of fun, like in the Candy Tunnel...

...and Ocean Tunnel...

...where whales lumber and loom and sharks poke their heads in to say "hi."

The Chinese eat jellyfish for their healing properties, rather than fearing them.

But they've come to associate pandas with friendship and peace.

For a short while, the Moonlight Forest transports you from China to the Serengeti Plain of sub-Saharan Africa...

...with its elephants and zebras...

...and lions, tigers, hippos, and giraffes.

But at its heart, the Moonlight Forest begins and ends with Chinese culture...

...its art, mythologies, and narratives.

At at the center of it all, floating on the Arboretum's Baldwin Lake (named after Lucky Baldwin, though it's actually a sag pond and not a real lake), is a 70-foot-long, 30-foot-high dragon.

All of it was created by Tianyu Arts and Culture from China’s Sichuan province—a first for the Arboretum, and judging only by the visual execution, a stunning success.

Here's to an auspicious end of 2018 and beginning of 2019.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Lighting Up the LA Zoo
Photo Essay: The Speedway Magic of Lights
Photo Essay: Glittering Lights at Las Vegas Speedway

Monday, December 17, 2018

Photo Essay: Crafting Cacao Under the Influence of a Printing Press

What happens when a Hollywood graphic designer who volunteers at the International Printing Museum gets interested in cacao?

You end up with Letterpress Chocolate, a small-batch, craft chocolate factory and storefront whose every bar is hand-wrapped...

...and custom-designed to feel handmade and olde-tyme.

And when you take the factory tour, you can taste any of the 70% dark chocolates from various cacao-growing regions around the world—ranging from Central and South America to Africa.

There's even one 85% dark and a 36% white chocolate infused with matcha green tea, both made from cacao beans sourced from Ecuador.

But before you taste the finished chocolate bars, you've got to drink the juice of the cacao pod—the amniotic fluid that the beans are nestled in and that's usually drained as a waste byproduct, but tastes like lychee.

After that is when you're ready to enter the kitchen, behind the wall of letterpress type.

After drying and roasting the once-juicy cacao bean embryo, you get the cacao nibs—separated from their shells by gravity using a machine. They taste bitter and earthy, dry and nutty, and roasty like coffee beans.

Next comes the chocolate liquor, which spends days being spun in a pot to smooth out its texture...

...eventually adding sugar to the mix and continuing to agitate to get all the molecules down to the same size.

They want to get the particles down to a certain optimum range—and they can monitor their size in real time with a micrometer and a grindometer.

Not surprisingly, grindometers are also commonly used to determine the particle size of printing inks.

At this point, the chocolate isn't full chocolate yet—but it tastes chocolatey enough, though perhaps a bit rough around the edges.

Before finished bars can be folded into their foil wrappers, the chocolate needs to be aged—sometimes for months, when it develops a bloom of cocoa butter (a.k.a. fat) on the surface.

The chocolate is then tempered, or alternately melted down and cooled off to reintegrate the bloom into the melted chocolate and keep crystals from forming. If the chocolate is heated or cooled too quickly or unevenly, it'll look streaky or mottled.

And although it'll taste exactly the same and even feel the same in your mouth, it'll be harder to sell because it isn't quite so pretty.

Letterpress sometimes remelts the mistakes down and other times sells them as "misfits" for half price.

The individual character of each single-origin bar is a matter of such personal preference, it's hard to say what's "best." That's what brings you into the shop to try whatever rings your bell.

My bell was rung most by the Fleur de Sel 70% Dark and 70% Dark Chocolate with steam-distilled mint oil, both from the Ashanti region of Ghana.

But the one I had to take home with me was the Maya Mountain Belize 70% Dark with puffed amaranth (instead of rice, like what you'd find in a Nestle Crunch or Hershey's Krackel).

Only one of their bars has any dairy milk added to the chocolate. The rest of the bars are made with unrefined cane sugar, which makes them friendly to vegans (since bovine bone char is used in making refined a.k.a. white sugar).

Although the Letterpress operation is small (crafting about 4000 bars a month), it fills a hole left in Los Angeles manufacturing when MAST closed its chocolate factory in the Arts District in 2017. (But even then, MAST wasn't an LA-based company the way that Letterpress is.)

Cacao, however, does not grow in Southern California. So for its raw materials, in addition to sourcing from growers throughout the world, Letterpress has also invested in Guatemala's Izabal Agroforest—its own sustainable cacao farm.

Soon enough, we'll be able to taste Letterpress chocolate bars made Letterpress-grown beans.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: From Bean to Bar at a Chocolate Factory
Farm to Fork? Bean to Bar? This Is Bean to Brew.
Photo Essay: Book Arts at the International Printing Museum
Photo Essay: A Different Type of Church

Saturday, December 15, 2018

To Have Ridden A Horse, In Wood or Flesh

What is it about riding a horse that makes you want to get right back on one?

I've never ridden a real horse, of course...

...except for maybe a pony at the Great New York State Fair when I was really little and couldn't appreciate it...

...but I've ridden plenty of carousel horses.

They don't go anywhere...

...just around in circles.

And they don't always look like they could hold me... they jump up and down.

But I'm endlessly fascinated by how each carousel horse is different—like how English ponies always have a name painted on the neck.

Or how some bear the markings of their maker on their side or their saddle.

Or how some aren't even horses at all, but rather giraffes...

...big cats...


...or dragons.

Even among the green and gold dragons by Orton and Sons Spooner Company in Burton on Trent, the bodies are the same but the tongues are all different.

When you're riding a carousel horse, the swish of the tail is the least of your worries.

You never know what might be peering at you from behind...

...or rearing its ugly head for an attack.

But there's only one way to sit on a carousel horse...

...and they only move in one direction.

But what about the people who become carousel horses? Field Marshall Roberts, an officer in Boer War, was carved into a centaur version by the Spooner Company, still holding a quill pen and paper scroll. He's more man than horse.

But even a wizard can't turn a man into a horse, no matter how he sits or what he wears or what horses he socializes with.

If you get on the back of a man who acts like a horse, you can't say you've ridden a horse.

But if you've only ridden horses carved out of wood—ones that merely follow the tails in front of them, with no regard for destination or variance in speed—you also can't say you've ridden a horse.

I plan to remedy that before the end of the year.

Special thanks to Running Horse Studio for access to its menagerie, in various stages of restoration, circa March 2018.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Wayward Carousel Horses & Other Creatures
Photo Essay: The Faces of the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round