Santa Barbara – discover the town where women are transforming the food scene

Santa Barbara – discover the town where women are transforming the food scene

It’s quite unnerving watching your dinner scuttle across the plate.

Particularly when you’ve just been informed that not only is it very much deceased but its ochre-yellow insides have been scooped out, replaced with a nutty biryani, then laid back over the top; a golden, gossamer-light coverlet of crustacean flesh.

Sat in modern Indian restaurant Bibi Ji on Santa Barbara’s main drag State Street, not everyone is keen to interrupt the thin, clacking spines of the sea urchins we’ve just been served – so fresh their nerve endings are still playing at life. Dip a teaspoon in though, and the subtle, silken urchin is incredibly soft, almost sweet.

The size of a curled hedgehog and just as lethal looking, these inky, indigo seabed dwellers are a Santa Barbara speciality, and if you’re going to eat one, preferably it’ll have been caught by Stephanie Mutz, California’s only – and much-beloved – female sea urchin diver. Her name is dropped proudly wherever we go.

A two-hour drive north of sprawling Los Angeles, along the curving edge of the North Pacific, Santa Barbara keeps a watchful eye on both passing dolphins and the Channel Islands, the native Chumash people’s territory.

While most visitors are attracted by the town’s laid-back vibe, year-round sunshine and nearness to Hollywood – Ellen DeGeneres has a house just up the road in Montecito, and regularly orders the marinara at Neapolitan pizza joint Bettina – I’m in the palm tree-fringed resort mainly for the eating possibilities.

Julia Child (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard Uni/PA)
Julia Child (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard Uni/PA)

The seafood options for a start are borderline excessive. Peeking into the kitchen of the wood-fronted, ramshackle Santa Barbara Shellfish Company on Stearns Wharf – its many struts reach into the water below, providing homes for huge Calippo-orange sea stars – there’s a transparent, dustbin-sized bucket bobbing with hundreds of scallops, shorn from their shells.

“Julia Child was a regular here,” says Karna Hughes, of Visit Santa Barbara, as we quickly knock back a platter of briny, creamy oysters and a bowl of pale pink prawn ceviche – a gaggle of honking seagulls and courtly brown pelicans sit nearby, much too interested in our lunch.

The American doyenne of French cuisine spent her final years in the Spanish-infused beach town (she died in 2004), eating tacos and setting up the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.

Her view from Stearns Wharf – crab meat on a plate, waiting to be prised from smashed claws – wouldn’t be much different to ours, although the best vantage is undoubtedly from a kayak.

Dodging the harbour’s shiny, multi-million-dollar boats, we paddle out into the sea-haze with the Santa Barbara Adventure Company. Cormorants dry their stretched-out wings in the sunshine while the velvety bulks of seals split the water’s surface, and yet more prehistoric-looking pelicans commandeer a dredger.

Our main quarry – and reward for the tricep-punishing sculling – is a distant buoy (the locals pronounce it “booie”). A bell clangs from the top of the rusted red and white structure, and on the platform below, a honking mass of chocolatey sea lions sunbathe, and clamber in and out of the ocean, flopping heavily on top of one another. Aubrie Fowler, our guide, calls their squashed together bodies a “cuddle puddle” – which is suitably adorable.

Not all of Santa Barbara is so snuggly, though. Historic tensions and cultural collisions between indigenous Chumash, Spanish, Mexican and American influences can be felt everywhere, from the Old Mission’s twin bell towers, to the moreish huevos rancheros served on the terrace at our hotel, the Belmond El Encanto, up in the hills.

And like the region’s native spiny lobster (so small and gnarly we only manage to wolf down a smidgeon of it atop a soft wedge of pain au lait at Spanish restaurant Loquita), swathes of the town have risen up in response to converging forces, born out of necessity or deprivation, and the spikiness of the landscape. It’s partly why the Funk Zone exists, and why SB is such a haven for wine aficionados.

A 4×4 block that runs from State Street to Garden Street, the Funk Zone was an area that fell into disrepair when the train line – which still slices through the town’s belly – ceased being used to transport goods. It hosted Santa Barbara’s fish market too (hence “funk”,  a nod to the stench), before being overrun with artists carving out space for their work. The streets today are still daubed in murals, and you’re practically encouraged to take artwork down off the pylons to keep. Its lifeblood, though, is food and wine.

Sausage, chilli and argula pizza at Lucky Penny, Santa Barbara (Ella Walker/PA)
Sausage, chilli and argula pizza at Lucky Penny, Santa Barbara (Ella Walker/PA)

Tara Jones set up the Eat This, Shoot That! Funk Zone Food & Photo Tour in 2012, to bring back more business to Santa Barbara during the recession and support ‘mom and pop’ restaurants. She considers it “the neighbourhood that happened when the city wasn’t watching”.

We hotfoot it round the zone, inhaling pastry-topped lobster bisque from the charcoal grill at Enterprise Fish Co; zingy tacos at Mony’s Mexican Food Taqueria (the spice of the salsa depends on the mood of the chef) and fresh Vietnamese spring rolls at Tyger Tyger, eaten beneath strands of pink lightbulbs.

There are golden pale ales to sip at the family-run Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co; triangles of sausage, chilli and rocket (arugula to Santa Barbarans, of course) pizza at Lucky Penny, and not-quite bitter Turkish coffee ice cream at McConnell’s, which has sold its slow-churned ices in Santa Barbara since the 1940s, originally from a handcart.

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santa barbara 🤙🏽☀️🌊🏝 #caroadtrip

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The sense of community is intense, and not just because Tara apparently knows every single person in town. There are numerous collective spaces – like the Santa Barbara Wine Collective, housed in Helena Avenue Bakery – where wine bars and restaurants share ground space as well as customers, and you’re constantly being encouraged to “go next door” to see what every other culinary-minded creative is up to.

This is particularly the case when it comes to the wine bars which – weirdly for those used to pub opening times – tend to be closed come sunset. Blame Santa Barbara’s wine region.

The Santa Ynez Mountains – which stare down at the town, making its towering palms that line the boardwalk seem utterly spindly in the morning light, and helping to manage its microclimate – run east to west, which is unusual for America. “That’s why it’s called Sideways,” explains Tara, referencing the Oscar-winning 2005 film that made SB famous (but also helped “tank” merlot sales).

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Welcome to Pali Vineyard! Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines were planted in 2012, and we harvested our first vintage in 2015. The vineyard is planted on 50 acres in Gypsy Canyon within the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. ——————————————————————————— We planted Pali Vineyard to ensure consistent, high quality fruit while maintaining sustainable farming and water use practices. Now we grow most of our Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays ourselves 😊 ——————————————————————————— Tonight we are picking Chardonnay, which will be made into a crisp, natural (sustainably farmed, native yeast, minimal minimal minimal minimal sulfur, unfiltered) Sta. Rita Hills Chard.

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It means the peaks face the ocean, catch a breeze all day and, in turn, provide a perfect ecology for wine growing. As a result, the cooler temperatures help produce lower alcohol wines with less sugar… ideal for daytime drinking. It means you can snag a wine flight at lunch, at say, Pali Wine Company, and still have the energy to hike Inspiration Point in the afternoon, or take a guided tour of Ganna Walska Lotusland (whose extraordinary, eccentric, ‘married six times’ founder, Madame Ganna Walska, erected cities of cycads and cacti after deciding: “No petunias in my house.”)

It’s a seaside resort awash with skateboarding college kids, aloes and sunshine, but the longer you wander, with each morsel you eat, the more Santa Barbara emerges as a place and a scene run by women – as wilful as the urchins corralled by Stephanie Mutz, as driven as Tara and the Funk Zone, and as open to new tastes as Julia Child.

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