Recently, I headed to Newport Beach for a bodysurfing session with friends at The Wedge. The Wedge isn’t just any surf spot, but the spot for bodysurfing in Southern California. It’s a steep wave and you have to know what you’re doing to ride it (and to avoid getting hurt). As is the case with many top-tier surf spots, there is a pecking order to surfing The Wedge and a crew of locals who doggedly enforce that hierarchy.
I know, it may seem weird that I’m talking bodysurfing instead of food, but the two worlds aren’t that different — both are tight-knit groups and both tend to have one-track minds (the only difference being surfers focus on waves instead of food). The crew at the Wedge has a long-standing reputation of being abrasive and confrontational if brushed the wrong way, so, when my friends decided to brave the wave that was well beyond my skill level, I made like a wallflower and minded my own business from the comfort of the jetty.
And then I met one of the crew. He’s a stocky, middle-aged, bodysurfer named Potato, because, well, I have no idea why, but it’s a great nickname all the same. Upon meeting him, I quickly learned two things: he’s very kind and very much a chatterbox. We talked the whole time my friends were in the water — first about the beach, the waves, Newport, and finally about food. I figured food came up because he knew I cooked, but turns out it was because Potato is a part-time cook and a full-time farmer. While he grows all sorts of produce, Potato’s main crop is lavender. (I know, you were hoping it would be potatoes, weren’t you?)
He grows lavender in the hills of eastern Santa Barbara county in an area known as the Cuyama Valley, hence the name of his farm: Cuyama Valley Lavender Company. He talked about how that location is in the perfect lavender-growing area with warm, arid days and cool nights, with the ideal elevation and soil content, and he also talked earnestly about the difficulties of being a small, independent farmer.
Then he waxed on about cooking with lavender. While I dream of visiting the rolling hills of lavender across the Mediterranean from France to Croatia, I generally find lavender’s flavor overwhelming, especially in food. But he persisted: explaining that there are two types of lavender — one being culinary grade — and that sometimes people cook with the wrong, more assertive type. The culinary grade –often of the Royal Velvet variety — has a perfumed quality that’s balanced by a menthol flavor reminiscent of rosemary or mint. He swore I’d be sold if I tried a bit. So, I left the beach that day with armfuls of lavender and encouragement from Potato to get creative in the kitchen.
After making simple syrup for cocktails and lemonade, ice cream, and shortbread, it was clear that this lavender was quality stuff. Yet I wasn’t quite a lavender convert. I wanted to balance the floral lavender flavor by using it in something savory. So I thought of France, where lavender is used in herbes de Provence — an herb blend including basil, fennel seed, marjoram, rosemary, savory, and sage — and how that rub is divine on roasted meats and grilled vegetables. That started me thinking of something lavender for my favorite meat, pork,because both ingredients share slightly sweet and earthy flavors.
I stopped by my local butcher, Lindy & Grundy, for some rib chops, then mixed up the dried lavender buds with light brown sugar, ground black pepper, thyme leaves, and minced garlic. After letting that marinate on the chops, I grilled it until charred, and served it with a few stone fruit and a glaze of honey and vinegar. It seemed only fitting to have my surfer friends taste test the dish since my lavender adventure unexpectedly began with them. I took it as a good sign that I managed to derail their one-track minds from the Wedge shorebreak, if only until dinner ended.