Gary Carpenter’s grandfather founded his family’s original ranch in the Los Angeles area in 1921. Commonplace on menus at that time and served in some of the city’s notable restaurants was squab, which is a pigeon approximately 28 days old. More than 80 years later, the little bird seems to be making a culinary comeback.
Today, the Carpenter Ranch, now based in Ventura County near Ojai, is still thriving under the supervision of Gary Carpenter, who once was inclined to pursue a career in comedy and folk singing. While initially reluctant to continue the family business, Carpenter has been committed for decades to raising a quality product. He dutifully cares for the demanding birds, feeding them a healthy blend of milo (grain sorghum), corn, and alfalfa. Pigeons are helpless when they hatch, and rely entirely on their parents for survival until they molt. So intense is the focus required in chick-raising that each family requires individual housing.
The ranch is also home to three varieties of ducks, several geese, and dozens of feral cats. The ducks, soon available to California chefs, forage for their food, which on this ranch means spill-over grains from the pigeon coops as well as avocados, apples, oranges, and walnuts from the remnants of a grove. Because of the ducks’ free-range status, daily egg hunts are necessary, so Carpenter and his crew search every nook and cranny on the property. Once found, the eggs are incubated and carefully monitored until hatching. And Carpenter is constantly keeping his skilled eye on both the ducks and squab for their market readiness.
Thankfully, three restaurants in Santa Barbara offer Carpenter Ranch squab-Downey’s, Square One, and Petit Valentien in La Arcada Court-and the duck is on the menu at the Biltmore’s Bella Vista. Take a piece of meat to four different chefs and you’ll get four different results-it’s fascinating to taste the different interpretations.
Chef John Downey’s dish has evolved since the time Carpenter was dining at a restaurant-the former Penelope’s-and asked to meet the chef. Downey emerged, Carpenter explained his family business, and a friendship was born. Thirty years later, this dish is an exercise in elegance and balance, tying together the earthy flavors and silky texture of the bird with classically inspired preparation. Downey roasts the squab with fresh thyme and garlic and serves it with a reduction of its own jus, luxuriously rich and savory without being heavy-handed. The dish is sometimes served with chard, but Downey prefers braised mustard greens, whose delicate bitterness provides an illuminating contrast. The saturation of flavors is certainly an achievement, but it’s the texture that steals the show. His medallions of squab breast have a melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. Even the leg and thigh are delicate. Each bite demands another, and, fortunately, Downey requests the largest of the Carpenter Ranch birds.
Not surprisingly, Square One’s Jason Tuley delivers an innovative and fascinating take on the bird. A passionately devoted supporter of sustainably raised products of the highest quality, Tuley turns out one of the most varied menus in town. Whether it’s sweetbreads, skate, venison, or squab, they’re always delicious, adventurous dishes to experience. His roasted squab is an unfiltered, unattenuated example of the bird’s flavor. This version is served perched atop a lentil and cuzzi squash falafel patty, a unique and inspired compliment to the earthy flavor of the fowl. A dollop of tomato jam, an island of sweet acidity, is cordoned off from the bird by a drizzle of basil-infused walnut oil. This dish is remarkable.
It’s interesting to compare flavors among fowl, especially side-by-side tastings such as the one offered at the year-old Petit Valentien. Chef Robert Dixon, who studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York, prepares a trio of grilled squab, quail, and duck with different sauces. Dixon achieves an entirely different effect by grilling Carpenter’s squab. The intense flavor is balanced by the sweetness and spice of a delicious blood plum sauce containing cinnamon, anise, and lime. The glaze offers a bright foil to the smoky flavor of the bird. It’s the standout bargain of the squab bunch.
The Bella Vista dining room at the Four Seasons Biltmore will be first in line to serve Carpenter Ranch duck, and a sneak peek revealed Chef Tory Martindale’s grand visions. His creation pairs a flawless preparation of duck breast with a rich duck leg confit souffle. The breast is cooked to meticulous perfection, first slow-cooked with herbs and duck fat using the sous-vide method, then seared and finished to medium rare in the oven, after which it is brushed with pomegranate molasses. A pomegranate/pinot noir reduction and an ample sprinkling of fresh thyme subtly accentuate the extremely tender slices of duck breast, striped with perfect, crispy bits of skin. A companion on the plate offers a much different look: Morsels of rich, dark meat confit are combined with shallots and chanterelles, flavored with aromatic herbs, and layered into a filo cup with a souffle. Altogether, Chef Martindale’s creation serves as a fitting homage to an exceptional product.
That a small squab ranch, founded in the ‘20s, has survived-and thrived-through decades of mass-produced food is remarkable. Indeed, a tour of the tastes around town confirms why.