On April 21st, the 14th annual Festival de las Conchas y el Vino Nuevo, or Festival of Shellfish and New Wines 2013 edition was held at along the dry dock of Ensenada's Hotel Coral y Marina on a beautiful sunny, breezy Baja afternoon. The festival, put on by Provino, boasted 40 local wineries, and 32 restaurants featuring the shellfish products from 32 peninsular producers of a variety of oysters, clams, and bi-valves.
The Sunday tasting event capped a 3-day celebration which has been dubbed Baja's best food event, along with the paella festival--these are the two events you must attend if you really want to experience the local color and food scene in full effect. Attendees visited shellfish producers at their estuaries, and plants; had shellfish themed dinners in the best restaurants in the regions, went to various social events, and finally the grand tasting event on Sunday--it's all just a premise for a shell slurping binge! While the events themselves are festive, it's the after parties that have made this one of the most talked about shindigs by the areas chefs, winemakers, brewers, and food lovers.
For around $32, you had unlimited shellfish like abalone, oysters(Kumamoto, Kumiai, giant huaraches, Pacific, and more), mussels, chocolata clams, Pismo clams, white clams, black clams(aka bloody clams), and geoducks served a variety of ways. Lines were short and the wine flowed freely all afternoon--there were small samples of wine at each booth, but if you bought a glass (around 8 dollars) the pours were consistently generous. This festival maintains a perfect ratio of class and puro pari!
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Wines were poured by the enologists themselves including Baja wine guru Hugo D' Acosta who offered a tall glass of his award winning Casa de Piedra--he then recommended we try his wine blended from grapes at his winery in Corbières, France and from the Valle de Guadalupe: La Borde Vieille. Other outstanding wines came from Amado Garza of Viñas de Garza, Victor Segura of Las Nubes, Cañada de los Encinos, and Victor Torres Alegre of Vinícola Torres Alegre.
Each restaurant was provided shellfish from the various producers--we're talking the best chefs and restaurants from Tijuana to Cabo. Chef Javier Plascencia grilled Pacific oysters in a caja china with fried ramen noodles, pork belly, and salsa verde. Chef Benito Molina served a raw Kumamoto oyster with chile de agua mignonette and a sprinkle of tiny chapulines(grasshoppers) for a taste of Oaxaca on the half shell. We checked out La Guerrerense's Sabina Bandera and her daughter Mariana's ceviche demo and were rewarded with a fistful of sea snails.
Many shellfish companies like Latitud Gastronomia Ensenada showcased their delicacies by hiring local chefs to show off their cache--the steamed mussels from this booth were delicious, set in a rich tomato broth that we greedily slurped 'til it was gone . Another booth served geoducks in a lime and hibiscus flower juice--Atenea en el Mar served the generous clam two ways--with soy and ginger, and au natural. All around there were plenty of shell shuckers handing out raw oysters like they were giving away candy.
One lesson learned is to arrive early and attack. We missed Chef Diego Hernandez of Corazon de Tierra, Cabo fisherman and Chef extraordinaire Drew Deckman, and Muelle Tres because they ran out of product. This was my first Conchas--as it's often referred by locals--and next year I will be hitting it hard when the door opens at noon.
How could I have missed this? As I departed (over 3 dozen shellfish later) buzzed and happy--I found a moment of sobriety to mark my calendar for 2014. There's always another Baja treasure hidden in plain sight, and while I know a little more about this big blue marble each passing year, Baja is still my oyster.