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A Culinary Renaissance in Ojai

BY GLENDA WINDERS Modified: September 15, 2010 at 10:34 am •  Published: September 15, 2010
What took me to Ojai, Calif., was a search for beauty. This sophisticated enclave tucked between the mountains just inland from Santa Barbara is where the "pink moment" happens at sunset, and in the classic movie "Lost Horizon" the adventurers gazing out over Shangri-La were really soaking up a view of the Ojai Valley. The village is an artists' colony, so paintings and sculpture, jewelry and textiles are everywhere.

It sounded like a feast for the eyes -- and it was. But I was surprised by another, more literal kind of feast, too. This non-cooking, eat-to-live anti-foodie discovered food.

My conversion began with a tour of the New Oak Ranch, where I met Karen and Bill Evenden. After retiring and sailing the Mediterranean, they settled here in view of Sulfur Mountain on an old walnut ranch that had been neglected for 15 years. Today, in addition to walnuts, they also grow the juicy, seedless "pixie" tangerines for which Ojai is famous and some olives, but I was there to see their field of 5,000 lavender plants.

"One day I looked out and said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we looked out over a field of lavender?" Karen recalled.

Today, they do just that. As she passed around glasses of lavender lemonade and a plate of freshly baked lavender biscotti on their patio, Karen and her husband explained how they have turned their land into an industry that Bill compares to a small winery. In the summertime, when the lavender is in bloom, they open their fields for a "you-pick" operation, and they play a big role in Ojai's annual lavender festival. They also harvest and market culinary and aromatic buds that they sell in sachets, lotions and creams. Their operation is organic, and the cutting and pruning are lovingly done by hand. The Evendens say they see their role as temporary stewards of the land.

"But my true passion is food," said Karen, who is also a cookbook author.

A cooking class is the last thing I would typically choose to do on a holiday, but I was high on the scent of lavender, and Karen's enthusiasm for locally grown produce, organic food and simple recipes had piqued my curiosity. When I learned she was one of the teachers at the Lavender Inn Culinary School, I signed up.

Two hours later found me perched on a stool in the inn's sunny kitchen, outfitted in a crisp white apron and taking notes with a pen that wrote in lavender ink. The rest of my classmates busily sliced the baguettes on which we would slather tomato-lavender jam and chopped the fresh vegetables Karen had brought from her farm, but I hung back, not wanting to mess something up with my lack of ability. Eventually Karen recruited me to pour the Chilled Avocado Soup into mugs. Also on the lunch menu were Roast Chicken With Farro and Ojai Pixie Tangerine Salad along with Walnut Orange Olive Oil Cake. We ate this easy, healthy repast outside on the inn's generous porch.

My education continued at Ojai Olive Oil, where owners Ron and Alice Asquith cultivate 130-year-old Spanish olive trees with as much care as the Evendens do their lavender. After a walk through the grove, Ron demonstrated how their Italian-made equipment is used to transform the olives into nine varieties of oil, some of it flavored with home-grown rosemary, oranges and lemons. We wound up in the tasting room, where we dipped cubes of bread into saucers filled with oil and sampled balsamic vinegars flavored with blackberry, ginger and peach.

The restaurants in Ojai also adhere to the "fresh and local" mantra, but before dinner my friends and I made a wine-tasting detour. The Casa Barranca Winery, producers of the pinot noir made famous in the movie "Sideways," wisely located their tasting room in the downtown arcade close to restaurants and shops. For a fee of $10, visitors can taste several organic wines made with Earth-friendly methods that include solar power. The 2008 Viognier was my favorite.

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