Winter’s chill clings to the docks of the Santa Barbara Harbor this morning, but Laurence Hauben arrives just after 8 with the antidote: a basket of pistachio-cranberry sablés, homemade shortbread biscuits dipped in dark chocolate, fresh from the oven.
She shares her treats with our small group, a delectable taste of the day to come, then offers some to the fishermen who run the makeshift waterfront seafood market every Saturday morning.
I nibble as we browse vats filled with squirming crabs and an assortment of rockfish. Nearby, several tubs overflow with live spiny lobsters, the main attraction today. After a brief inspection, Hauben suggests a shiny 2-pound female with a long, fat tail that looks meaty.
“It’s as fresh as it gets,” she says. “We’ll make a lobster salad. Our first course.”
Another Santa Barbara Market Foray has begun. Several times a month, Hauben hosts these Santa Barbara Market Forays, offering a taste of the Central Coast’s lifestyle and its wealth of locally produced foods and wines.
Hauben is a French-born chef, part-time orchard farmer, former director of the local farmers market and current leader of Slow Food Santa Barbara, which is a group dedicated to celebrating local foods. Today she also is a tour guide. She is taking me and two other women -- a visitor from the East Coast and a longtime Santa Barbara resident -- on a culinary shopping spree that will culminate with a hands-on cooking class and feast in a lovely old Santa Barbara neighborhood.
After Sam the fisherman bags our lobster, the four of us head to the next shopping stop: the Saturday farmers market downtown.
Santa Barbara is home to one of California largest farmers markets, a community fixture that began in the ‘70s, long before green and local came into fashion. Now it draws growers from across Santa Barbara County and as far away as Fresno every weekend. The late celebrity chef Julia Child visited regularly.
The Saturday market also is a vibrant part of Santa Barbara’s social scene. Far more than just a place to shop, it’s an opportunity to visit with friends and schmooze with farmers such as Scott Peacock, the owner of Peacock Family Farms in Nipomo. He has been driving his fruits and vegetables to Santa Barbara every Saturday for 22 years, “except when there’s a wedding or a funeral in the family.”
Residents turn out en masse, hauling canvas sacks, rolling carts and extended families to Cota and Santa Barbara streets.
Our group -- Hauben our leader, Joan from Santa Barbara, Merle from New York and me from a small beach town south of Los Angeles -- arrives at the farmers market just before 8:30. We browse stalls heaped with mounds of rainbow-colored chard, long-legged leeks, fancy romanesco broccoli with pale green spires, sweet-smelling paper whites and a bevy of other fresh blooms, golden beets, fertile eggs and some of the last eggplants of the season.
We sample locally made olive oil, toasted walnuts and goat cheese flavored with herbs. Hauben introduces us to Peacock and other longtime growers along the way, as I snap up wildflower honey and juicy mandarin oranges to take home.
Hauben, meanwhile, eagerly scoops up delicate oyster mushrooms for the lobster salad; at another stall she spies tiny Persian cucumbers, adding them to the menu.
She also finds a crunchy yet soft baguette at the Solvang Pie Co. “This is the best [bread] I’ve felt,” she says. “I couldn’t resist.”
Several days before our Saturday foray, Hauben shares a tentative menu that includes fuyu persimmon salsa with purple corn chips, warm lobster salad on a bed of spicy greens with lime chipotle cream, honeyed mandarins, locally raised roast duck, winter greens, a cheese course, freshly baked bread, éclairs au café and local wines. She cautions us that our menu might change, depending on what we find.
Our host has ordered a duck from a local farm, but when we arrive at the stand on Saturday morning we learn the bird has been sold to another shopper. Hauben brainstorms other main course options for our feast. (Grass-fed beef from Atascadero? Farm-raised chicken?)
We wander only a few stalls away when the farmer shouts for us to return: “I have your duck! I have your duck!” It turns out that the shopper who has bought our duck has relinquished it when she hears about the mix-up. Everyone cheers. Our perfect Santa Barbara day is back on track.
By 10:15, as the farmers market gets crowded and our shopping sacks bulge, we set off on the next leg of the foray. We head up Santa Barbara Street to C’est Cheese, a small and bustling family-owned shop. Hauben suggests five selections for our cheese course.
We travel in a caravan to Hauben’s home in Santa Barbara’s leafy LaRoque neighborhood overlooking the mountains.
The four of us spend the next several hours chopping, peeling, stirring, stuffing, snacking, sharing stories and sipping wine in Hauben’s sunny kitchen. Among other things, she shows us how to make puff pastry appetizers stuffed with goat cheese and herbs.
We also make simple dishes, such as fresh apples roasted with the duck, sliced Persian cucumbers tossed with rice vinegar and mandarin oranges flavored with honey and lavender that Joan snips from the backyard garden. Our host’s mantra: “If you’ve got a great product, don’t do too much to it.” Also: “Be playful. Try stuff.”
By midafternoon, we gather in Hauben’s dining room to savor our feast, one delicious course at a time served on floral Limoges, as we listen to a Jacques Brel soundtrack. It is the right music for a day that combines a French cook’s adventurous sensibilities with the bounty of California’s Central Coast. Truly the best of both worlds.