Jan 13, 2011

Off the Beaten Path in Ojai, California

I think one of the best parts of traveling is discovering out-of-the-way places. Ojai is one of our great discoveries. It is a lovely spot between Santa Barbara and Ventura on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest with eucalyptus trees, hiking/biking trails, unique shops, and small ranches. It has drawn artists, free spirits and city-weary folks. One of the residents said, “It is where Buddha meets Bubba.”

We stayed at the Lavender Inn, which is one of the oldest buildings in town and was originally built as a schoolhouse in 1874. It is just off the main street so we could walk to shops, the museum, and restaurants. Plus the trolley stop is just steps away – and it only costs a quarter. Like many restaurants, the Lavender Inn tries to use only locally grown produce in their wonderful breakfast recipes and in the hors d'oeuvres served during the afternoon social hour.

The Mediterranean climate allows farmers to grow just about anything. The area is one of America’s great farming regions so we visited some of the local farms. The Asquith Farm produces olive oil from trees that are 150 years old. On the tour we learned about olive varieties, the maturing process and harvesting of the olives. Interestingly, we were told that imported virgin olive oil may not be the best as the U.S. has no standards for imported oils so importers can claim anything they wish. The Asquith Farm only produces Extra Virgin olive oil, which is made by crushing healthy olives as quickly as possible after they are harvested. Ideally the time from tree to press should be no more than 24 hours.

We also visited the New Oak Ranch. Bill and Karen Evenden, the owners, have lived in many parts of the world. They grow produce that reminds them of the many places they have lived. When their Ojai Pixie Tangerines are in bloom it reminds them of springtime along the French and Spanish coasts. But lavender is the most aromatic crop on New Oak Ranch. When Karen Evenden looked out of the expansive windows of her lovely home she thought, “How nice it would be to see a field of lavender like those we saw in Tuscany, Provence, and Croatia.” and so it came to pass.

Karen authored The Taste of Croatia and gives cooking classes – sometimes at the Lavender Inn. While we were there we watched her friend teach her how to make strudel the Croatian way. I think strudel is beyond my culinary skills. The pastry has to be so thin that the design of the tablecloth can be seen through the pastry.

On the way back to The Lavender Inn we experienced what the locals call a “Pink Moment.” It is a phenomenon first noticed by the early settlers that occurs when the brilliant sunset over the nearby Pacific is reflected on the mountainside creating a beautiful pink glow.

There are many great restaurants in the area but one of the most unique is the Farmer and the Cook. The trolley stops across from the restaurant making it a convenient place for lunch. It is a no-nonsense café where they grow most of the ingredients organically that are used to prepare their straight-from-the farm food. It was excellent and very busy.

We have visited many wonderful little towns in California but Ojai is one of our favorites.