Baja California- where have you been?
Growing up in Chula Vista, California near the Mexican border, my family and I frequently went camping in Ensenada, Baja California. After my father retired and bought a little trailer cabana in Ensenada, Mexico became a second home for us. However, about 15 years ago, everything changed. The frequent violence and kidnappings caused by the drug cartels caused our family and friends to say, “No, you can’t go to Mexico anymore, it’s too dangerous.” As a result, we sealed Mexico off from our minds.
But things are now changing again. Travel and wine magazines are gushing that Baja California is now one of the ‘food and wine capitals of the world.’ This is particularly true for the region called Valle de Guadalupe, located 1 1/2 hours from the U.S./Mexican border near Ensenada. Known for its porous soil and ideal climate, this area is ideal for growing grapes for wine cultivation. This region is also known for its Baja Med style of cooking, combining gourmet techniques with traditional Mexican dishes, while adding locally sourced ingredients such as olive oils, seafood and tomatoes.
Intrigued by the media frenzy, my husband and I decided to see for ourselves. Instead of going it alone, we joined the group, Club Tengo Hambre (meaning ‘I am hungry’ in Spanish) to guide us on the trip. CTH describes themselves as a ‘roving supper club’ and are experts in guiding small groups into Baja, California.
We met the group on the US side of the border in front of McDonalds (a good start to our culinary adventure!) and then walked across the border together. That was easy, no lines, just walking through a turnstile. However, I knew it would be a different matter returning to the US from the looks of the pedestrian line coming the other way- it must have been 1/4 mile long. After crossing the border, a van awaited us to take us on our all-day trip south of the border. After passing around a bottle of Tequila for each of us to pour a tipple, we felt relaxed. I peered out the side windows of our van to see if I recognised the Tijuana that I used to know- the hovels were still there on the side of the hills, but were slowly being replaced by more modern housing. I heaved a sigh of relief, there were no bandits following us and no need to ride shotgun – we were safe.
Valle de Guadalupe
As we approached the valley, it appeared to be rather dry with low scrub and various kinds of cactus. Most of the wineries ‘dry farm’ their crops, drawing water from reservoirs and wells, rather than relying on rainfall.
photo attributed to Sarah Gilbert of theguardian.com
Las Nubes Winery
The first winery we visited was Las Nubes (“The Clouds”). This winery offered sweeping views of the valley and its thick stone walls, reminded me of a Tuscan farm house. Located on 75 acres, the winery grows 15 kinds of grapes, including sauvignon blanc, syrah and chardonnay. Most of the wines are named after clouds such as Cumulus, Nimbus and Nebbiolo, although the wine I chose was called Selección de Barricas, a young, red blend that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Grenache and Syrah.
Delicious full-bodied red wine Lovely views of the Guadalupe Valley at La Nubes After several hours of wine tasting, we were ready to have our meal at the Finca Altozano restaurant. This is an outdoor restaurant in a rustic setting, owned by well-known Mexican chef, Javier Plascencia. Most of the food on the menu comes from local ingredients sourced from the Valle de Guadalupe and local seafood. The atmosphere is relaxed; you could easily believe you were having lunch in a ranch 60 years ago, with no nearby freeways roaring past to distract you. The open kitchen allows you to watch the meat being barbequed and the bread being baked in a wide-fired oven.
Finca Altozano open-air restaurant Quails being barbequed over wood fire Open kitchen where you can watch the food being cooked One of the house specialities is Pulpo del Pacifico, tender pieces of marinated octopus served with citrus, ginger, peanuts and cilantro. I normally don’t care for octopus, but these tender morcels were delicious. Another dish on the menu was Lengua des Res- ‘Such a beautiful name in Spanish,’ I said to myself. Only when the dish arrived at my table did I realise it was beef tongue, not something I’d ordinarily order for myself, but delicious none the less, served on top of a soft tortilla.
Lengua des Res To finish off our meal, we were served barbequed quail and shrimp- my mind is now made up- I’m definitely going to come back to this restaurant again!
Clos de Tres Cantos Winery
The last winery we visited was Clos de Tres Cantos. The owners, Joaquin and Maria, started this winery with sustainability and regard for the local environment in mind. This is evident in the use of local materials in the winery’s buildings: the use of reclaimed wood and recycled bottles creates stunning architectural effects on the grounds.
The exterior walls of this winery looked Mayan in appearance, while the interior looked almost like a chapel.
Mayan influence with the architecture
Inside the Winery- almost like a chapelStunning effects created with recycled wine bottles
As our group travelled the 1 1/2 hours back towards the US border, I was apprehensive; how long would we have to wait to cross the border- one hour? two hours? It was getting dark and I wasn’t looking forward to standing in line for two hours. The wait turned out to be 1 hour 15 minutes to cross the pedestrian border and go through customs. This was not too bad but I noted with envy that those people who had Sentri passes were able to march right up to the front of the line (I’m definitely applying for one of those passes for the next time).
All in all, was it an enjoyable experience? Yes! Club Tengo Hambre were excellent tour leaders and I’d highly recommend them. The best thing, though, was being able to re-visit Mexico again and to see how it has blossomed with its food and wine offerings. Next time you find yourself saying “Tengo Hambre” (I’m hungry), be sure to plan a trip to the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja, California!