Thursday, March 15, 2012

Courting Beauty: The Santa Barbara County Courthouse

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse has been rightly called the most beautiful public building in America, and honestly there is no argument. You don’t have to know anything about architecture to be in awe of this impressive building so make sure you bring your camera. This is classic Santa Barbara and you need to see it when you visit. Covering an entire block the courthouse is a stunning example of Spanish and Moorish (Persian) design. William Mooser III designed this courthouse to replace the earlier 1872 version built on the same site, a Colonial-Jeffersonian looking thing with a massive domed copula and lots of columns.
The Sunken Gardens from the Clocktower

But the 1926 earthquake changed the face of Santa Barbara forever. When the new courthouse was completed in 1929 it was unlike anything in the city. Lush grounds including the copious lawn and Sunken Gardens (you’ll find lots of concerts and events happening here) lay the foundation for the sandstone building with arabesque windows, archways, hand painted wood ceilings, and walls with intricate designs, and pueblo tile inlays nearly everywhere flashing brilliant colors and native designs. While you visit make sure you look up - the hand painted ceilings and beams were done in a style known as Dutch-Metal whereby paint was mixed with copper and zinc to achieve what looks like gold inlay.
Of particular note is the Mural Room, once used for the county board of supervisors for about 30 years. The huge room (40 feet wide by 70 feet long with 25 foot ceilings) is covered in a mural depicting the early Chumash Indians and following the history of the area towards California statehood in 1850. (As a matter of worthless trivia, the City of Santa Barbara is actually older than the State of California: Santa Barbara was founded on April 9th, 1850, and California achieved statehood on September 9th, 1850, so there!) The chandeliers in the Mural Room weight in at half a ton each.

The Clocktower, known as El Mirador, is one of the tallest structures in the city, a mere 85 feet, but it is here where you will get the best views of downtown, the mountains and ocean from a downtown perspective. Take the elevator to the fourth floor. Once there, a dozen steps lead up and out to the platform. You’ll be thrilled at the red tile roofs splayed out in front of you on the nearby buildings, the Rivera where you can see the twin Mission towers, the Channel Islands, ever the tip of Ventura, and of course everything in between. There are placards describing points of interest at each direction so you can easily get your bearings. This is a must photo-op.
From the Clocktower you can see the red tile roofs of Santa Barbara

This is also still a functioning courthouse (I know this all too well as I served on jury duty here for three weeks, but in a crappy unadorned courtroom!). You don’t need the tour to appreciate the sheer beauty and craftsmanship of the building, but they will give you more specific information. Ironically, by Santa Barbara County’s current building codes and standards, the courthouse would never be approved and built today: it’s massing would be considered too great, it would violate the height ordinance of 60 feet, and there is no adequate parking. Fortunately it remains a jewel in Santa Barbara and frankly, the best expression of what Santa Barbara was envisioned to be like in the late 1920s.
There are beautiful details everywhere

The Courthouse is located at 1100 Anacapa St. (805/962-6464, and free docent tours are conducted at 2 p.m. daily, except Sunday. Additional tours are at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Friday. 

WATCH my 2 Minute Travel video shot in the Clocktower here:

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Santa Barbara Sweet: Cocoa, Chocolate & Consumption

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like chocolate. One of the favorite foods of our forefathers, who established this plot of heaven on the California Central Coast, was and continues to be, chocolate. Cocoa came to Alta California from Mexico transported on the backs of donkeys and Spanish padres. But these days you don’t need to work that hard to find exceptional chocolate.

Cocoa Then       
Chocolate was an integral staple of the Missions, from present day Texas, to Sonoma in California. Local Mission documents from 1779 through 1810 record the important use of chocolate and the padres routinely drank hot chocolate first thing in the morning before breakfast. Even father Junipero Serra, who founded Mission Santa Barbara, wrote about chocolate in the early 1770s. At the Santa Barbara Presidio residents had a variety of spices available to them and requisition records show that among the requests were cloves, saffron, cumin, and anise - coffee wasn’t requested until 1805. But chocolate was constantly ordered in large quantities and was asked for specifically from Caracas and Tabasco, Mexico, telling us that the concept that every place produces a product specific to its inherent ecology. There were specific pots associated with chocolate, many with locking lids due to the value of the cocoa it contained. The jerro chocolatero pots were made from copper and used to heat, then whip the chocolate into a drink. 
Copper Cocoa Pot

Chocolate Now
These days chocolate is easier to come by and Santa Barbara is home to four chocolate shops. Maya Schoop-Rutten learned chocolate making in her native Switzerland and her Chocolate Maya store, the only place she sells her chocolates, opened in 2007. She not only carries chocolate bars from places around the world, but the confections behind the glass are handmade by her using fresh local herbs. She hand decorates each individual piece and seeks out fair trade practices from whom she buys her bulk chocolate, and even travels to cocoa plantations across the globe to see for herself where the beans come from. “I need to know the origins of my chocolate,” she tells me. Her hand made chocolates are $2 a piece and imported chocolate bars range from $2.50 to $15 depending on origin and rarity.
Chocolate Maya and Maya Schoop-Rutten
Say chocolate in Santa Barbara and most people think Jessica Foster Confections. Foster started her company after working as a pastry chef at Bouchon. She has no formal training but has created a very successful business. Her truffles sell for $1.50 per piece and she hand rolls and hand dips 30 different flavors. You can find her truffles at Lazy Acres, Whole Foods, and Pierre Lafond in Montecito. But what exactly is a truffle? “It’s really a ganache filled bon bon,” Foster says, and they have nothing to do with the truffles dug up from the ground. She ships throughout the U.S. but also takes appointments in her small kitchen by request only. If you’re so inclined, and why wouldn’t you be, she offers a quarterly chocolate club. Milk chocolate salt and pepper, and her white chocolate Mayer Lemon are her top selling truffles.
Jessica Foster

For Jean-Michel Carre of Chocolats du CaliBressan it was the opposite story. Trained as a chef and owner of a restaurant in the Burgundy, France, cocoa was part of the long view. “I was always interested in chocolates when I was in France,” he says. He has 36 different flavors, many in molded shapes like the Buddha Beauties; soft salted caramels with a dark chocolate shell in the shape of a happy Buddha; and the Bisous- bright red lips filled with dark and milk chocolate ganache and tangerine liquor. Individual pieces sell for $1.75 at either of his two storefronts in Santa Barbara or Carpinteria. And Cali is the only place which offers a tour. The third Thursday of every month for $20 (you need to make reservations) you get a behind-the-scenes look at how chocolates are made, a little bit of history about cocoa and you taste several chocolates, all while sipping a glass of Champagne.
Jean Michel Pours His Molds
The most recent addition is Twenty-four Blackbirds. What sets them apart is that owner Mike Orlando actually makes his chocolate from raw beans. The others buy bulk chocolate, then change/add ingredients to suit their preferences, but Orlando buys raw beans from places like Peru, Madagascar and the Dominican Republic, roasts them, crushes them, refines them and molds them into bars. It’s a time consuming process but he is one of the few people in the U.S. to make chocolate by hand. A former analytical chemist at UCSB he’s well adapted to the specificity of the tedious process. What you get is cocoa and sugar, that’s it; chocolate bars that are hand signed by lot number and expiration date. And his chocolate is probably the purest expression of original cocoa - deep, bittersweet and fast becoming an obsession around town. Telegraph Brewing Company has partnered with him to make a chocolate beer. His bars sell for $2.50 and you can find them at The French Press, Pierre Lafond in Montecito, and Chocolate Maya.
Mike Orlando Makes Bean-To-Bar Chocolate

For additional cool info about cocoa in Santa Fe, New Mexico, check out my other blog,

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