Drive through the seemingly impenetrable coastal mountains of Baja,
which provide such amazing scenery for the last few kilometers of the
drive, and suddenly the landscape opens up into a wide valley, planted
with trees and grapes and dotted with dairy cows. This is the Valle de
Guadalupe, Mexico's wine country, and ground zero for just about every
non-seafood product that makes Baja's cuisine the astonishing marvel it
Red dirt roads in varying states of repair crisscross the valley, with the occasional paved road
leading to or from the northern rim of the valley at El Porvenir, and at
the end of one such road lies Rancho Cortés, where they produce the
best olive oil in the world.
That's a bold statement in a world that has been dominated by
Mediterranean oils and then goosed by the grass bombs produced in Alta
California, but it's true. Rancho Cortés is a dairy farm and cheese
producer, but it's also the hub of a small group of olive farmers that
stretches all the way to Tecate, who bring their olives to be pressed.
The cooperative's brand is called Misiones de Baja California, and the oil is brilliantly green, floral, slightly grassy, and only barely acidic. Where French olive oil can be cloying, California oil is almost always far too throat-puckeringly tannic, and Spanish oil very hot and assertive, Misiones de Baja California oil–and Baja olive oil in general–is very carefully neutral, which means it goes with absolutely everything.
The best part, though, is the price. California oils all go for $20 to $30 a litre, with some outliers reaching $40 a liter; if you buy it at the ranch, Misiones de Baja California goes for 125 pesos a liter–which, at current exchange rates, is about $8.80. Even if this were just run-of-the-mill oil, it'd be an outstanding value. As it is, I try to buy them out of current stock every time I go.
Rancho Cortés' cheese is top-notch as well; the cows are all fed most of the year on pasture, but during the season, huge piles of calabaza–pumpkin–supplement the cows' diet. A degustación of 8 cheeses plus oil and a sample of wine costs 35 pesos, or about $2.50.
There are various quesos frescos that grill well on a flat comal to be used in sandwiches with avocados and pickled jalapeño chiles; the best of these has basil (“albahaca”) kneaded into the curds. The queso oreado, made from a mix of goat's and cow's milk, has a floral, funky, almost barnyard taste; the cheese practically screams to be cubed and used in a mix for chiles rellenos;
Real del Castillo, a cheese developed in Ojos Negros, just a few kilometers southeast in the next valley, tastes like Greek manouri's elder brother, but the winner of them all is the queso añejo, aged for just 5 months in a small refrigerated cave in a small building. Cheese that strongly flavored is often gooey; not so Rancho Cortés queso añejo.
Pair the queso fresco with a light rosé, as they do at the tasting room; pair Real del Castillo with the Grenache that is popular in the valley; pair the stronger-tasting cheeses with something more assertive, like a Cabernet blend.
To get to Rancho Cortés, exit the 1-D toll road for La Misión and La Fonda, then turn left off the exit. Follow Federal Highway 1 (the free road) inland through La Misión, then turn left at the sign for Valle de Guadalupe. At the intersection for El Porvenir and Ensenada, turn left into Rancho Cortes and follow the “QUESOS” signs. You can also take Federal Highway 3 from Ensenada; at the U-turn (“RETORNO”) past San Antonio de las Minas, turn right onto the first paved road; that will take you straight to the gate.
You can buy Misiones de Baja California olive oil for a small markup at Cremería Los Globos, located at the traffic light on Federal Highway 3 in San Antonio de las Minas–the only traffic light in the valley.
You can take as much olive oil as you like back across the border, and one liter of wine duty-free; cheese is limited to 5 kg (11 lbs.), and don't forget to declare it!