I've just come back from another weekend south--just barely south--of the border, this time for the first Baja Culinary Fest (Festival Culinario de Baja Cailfornia). Think of a Taste Of event, except held statewide, and with dinners featuring local and guest chefs, sommeliers and mixologists, tours of the farms, and product samplings; kind of like Taste of Newport, except held over an area nearly the size of South Carolina.
I knew Baja had some amazing things to eat, and I've certainly had my share of excellent prepared meals there, but what surprised me this time was the ingredients available there. Sure, everyone knows Baja is where you go for lobster and other seafood unavailable in the United States, but there were some eye-opening discoveries this time. It was hard to pick five--there was third-wave coffee, there was great bread, there were outstanding preserves.
Geoducks (remember, "gooey ducks") are those comical-looking bivalves that look like... well, look at the picture; it's obvious what they look like. They're natives of the Pacific Northwest, which meant they were hard to get in southern climes. Now there is commercial geoduck aquaculture happening off the coast of Ensenada, and while they're not quite as tender as their northern cousins, they are still an excellent--and sustainable--choice for seafood.
Sonora is more famous for cows than Baja California, but the herds on our southern neighbor are almost exclusively dairy herds. Butter, milk, cream and cheese all are produced in Baja California's Real del Castillo region, between Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe on Highway 3. There are the usual semi-soft cheeses being made (ones with basil or rosemary are especially popular), and outstanding requesón (similar to ricotta). Some aged cheeses--called quesos añejos-- are starting to show up, and in the winter, when the milk is creamier, soft cheeses reminiscent of brie are made.
The Valle de Guadalupe, which is the bread basket of northwestern Mexico, produces a lot of wine. Historically it's been pretty rough stuff, but they've started making major improvements and wineries such as JC Bravo and Monte Xenic are producing outstanding wines that compare favorably with California wine. Some of the wineries have started distilling their own grappa which, while expensive, is not as harsh as its European ancestors, and is a great way to get through a multi-course Baja Med meal.
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I'll be writing more on the olive oils that come out of Baja California in a separate post, but I was shocked the first time I tried a Baja olive oil. It's a product that's as young in Baja as it is in California, but the taste is outstanding; far less acidic, far less distractingly assertive than most of the oils produced here. It was a happy surprise and the reason my suitcase weighed so much upon reentry to the U.S. that I was afraid the wheels would break.