One might think that, having grown up in a place that place would be known in all its intricacies, in all its nooks and crannies. One would be wrong. Though I grew up in Baja California, Mexico, as well as Southern California’s Orange County I am only just beginning to get to know this place that was planted in me at such an early age. And though I grew up traveling back and forth to my grandmother’s home in the small village of La Mision, now that her casa has become mi casa, I’ve decided its time to get to know this place whose accent is on my tongue, whose sights, smells, tastes and sounds instilled themselves within me at such a young age, but have lain dormant these decades since. It’s time to get to know this place I call home.
Not even an hour away from my spot at KM 62.5 along what is called the ‘free road’ or the ‘old road,’ depending on the age of the one you ask and whether or not they have been around long enough to remember the construction of the new (toll) road, is hidden gem that is beginning to gain widespread recognition – Baja’s Guadalupe Wine Valley. Some are comparing it to Napa or even Tuscany – and though it does not yet have the following of either of those two famous destinations, it most definitely has the creds, with over 50 wineries (up tenfold in just the past five years) and a number of boutique B&B’s, organic farms, and gourmet restaurants where food is often served fresh from the garden surrounding it.
Yesterday’s adventure took me to the ‘pop-up restaurant’ (though it has since become a permanent, though seasonal fixture in the southeast corner of the valley not far from the newly opened Wine Museum and the well-known Laja Organic restaurant) known as Finca Altozano – one of the growing number of ‘campestre’ (literally means ‘country’ our ‘out in the country’) dining experiences making themselves known in the region.
There is only one way to describe this campestre experience – it was a delight to the senses.
Finca Altozano is about a mile off Mexico highway 3, down a dirt road, and with no signage off the main highway – a place for those who know what they are looking for, or who happen upon it as they meander down the valley’s many dusty back roads. It sits upon a small knoll (or hillock, as the word ‘altozano’ means), above the fields of grapes and of springtime weeds. As you enter under the archway of what looks like reclaimed urban decay and find a place in the grassy field that serves as parking lot, the expansive vista of the Guadalupe valley unfolds toward the east.
The dining area is open air, looking out on the valley, with a dozen or so sturdy wooden tables – some with long benches, others with chairs in the rustico style and still others – like ours which was clearly overflow for a larger than expected Sunday evening crowd – collapsible topped with a red and white checked tablecloth.
The kitchen is outdoor – thus the campestre – with an ‘asador’ (grill) alongside. Locally brewed beer (we tried the Guerra Coquetona – the flirty blond) is served in mason jars and wine (also, of course, local from the valley) comes by the bottle.
The menu changes based on what is available and what is fresh. Chef Javier Plascencia who also owns Tijuana’s well-known Mission 19 made his way from the grill to the tables to greet guests and share in a bit of conversation.
Our group of 7 decided to order a number of items and share – morrones asados en lena de olivo (grilled red peppers in olive oil with arugula and garlic), pulpo del pacifico a la brasa (octupus with soy, ginger, peanut and cilantro), tostados de ahi, chorizo y chistorra, and grilled Brussels sprouts that were to die for.
We shared a bottle of the local tempranillo Norte 32 made within miles of where we enjoyed its smokey notes – which may have been enhanced by the smoke of the asador as it grilled our entrees.
Though it is still early in the season – traditionally (meaning, the past year, as the campestre dining experience in the valley is not much older than that) visitors find their way to the valley in the warmer summer temperatures – the dining patio was at capacity even with the extra tables that had clearly been set up to accommodate these unexpected numbers.
As the music strolled through a variety of selections including Johnny Cash and more traditional mariachi music the light of the setting sun turned golden and then began to wane. The delicate wine glasses held only the remnants of that valley tempranillo. The subtle intensity of the fresh flavors lingered. The conversation between friends – newly made and long connected – rested gently. After a beautiful evening, it was time to wind back along the dirt road, nigh sky brilliant for lack of ambient light competing with the stars, and head back to La Mision.
all images © erin dunigan 2013