It might surprise you that the culinary delights in and around Ensenada reach far beyond their famous fish tacos and a Margarita at Hussong’s Cantina. A trip to the oldest cheese cave in Latin America, wine tasting and the oldest French restaurant in Ensenada all add up to one surprisingly Perfect Day in Baja .
Begin your gastronomic adventure by heading south of Ensenada on the Ojos Negros #3. It’s a pretty drive that takes you up into the mountains and winding through a pass very reminiscent to the famous La Rumorosa with giant boulders as landscape. Once over the pass it opens into a valley and an expanse of green fields and beautiful farmland.
Cava de Marcelo
Continue on until you reach kilometer 43.5 and make a left. Traveling in Mexico is still an adventure with the sparse use of signage—making it a real travel experience. Continue down the paved road until it turns to dirt and drive another 3 kilometers and follow the signs for Cava de Marcelo.
There aren’t any huge signs announcing you’ve arrived, so continue past the cows and milking facilities until you see a grass area with a wooden structure and picnic benches. You’ll be greeted and offered coffee or tea. If it happens to be chilly you’ll also be offered blanket for your lap or shoulders.
La Cava de Marcelo, was originally started by a Swiss Italian named Pedro Ramonetti Bonetti who came from San Francisco to the valley. He bought the ranch – which encompasses 260 acres and began making cheese. It has now been handed down though many generations of the Ramonetti family.
The guided tour begins with a short walk to the cheese making facility. This includes a visit to the Halston cows, milking areas and explanation of the process of the art of making cheese. During this part of the tour, you’ll have a chance to try a few butters and fresh cheeses.
Next, a walk to the cheese cave building. The interior is dimly lit with just a few windows on the entrance level and is decorated with photos of the many generations of the Romenetti family. They have been making artisanal cheeses by hand since 1911 and use a recipe from Uruguay that dates back to 1750. They currently produce 6 tons of cheese a month.
Head downstairs to the cave where you will find a dim room with café style tables. The walls are encased glass shelves with cheese in the various stages of the aging process. In fact there are up to 10,000 cheeses in the cave that see no natural light. The cave’s humidity, temperature and darkness are what create the ideal temperature for the aging process.
Now for the really fun part. Take a seat at one of the many tables and prepare for a cheese and wine tasting. You’ll taste cheeses aging from 5 months to 3 years accompanied with green apple, homemade jam and bread.
After the cheese tasting make your way outside to the picnic tables for lunch. Cava de Marcelo serves a full lunch –most prepared on an outdoor grill. Enjoy sangria, beer, lemonade or another glass of wine.
Start with the Grilled Portabello Mushrooms with melted basil cheese or roasted tomatoes with fresh basil served with bread and habanero chili.
The grilled sardines with a ricotta sauce made up of tomatoes, cactus and raspberry vinegar and topped with spinach and cracked chili powder are amazing.
Also delicious is the smoked marlin served cold on bread with capers and onions with an accompanying salad. These are just some of the delicious choices.
To truly enjoy the Cava de Marcelo experience plan to spend about three to four hours.
San Rafael Winery
With a full belly, continue the afternoon by heading back in the direction of Ensenada about two miles to the 39 Kilometer mark to the first dirt road and make a right at the 300 meter road sign to the San Rafael Winery.
Owned by the Hussong family as in “the Hussong family”, the San Rafael Winery and tasting is a don’t miss experience. Ludwig, the great grandson of the founder of Hussongs Cantina attended Oenology and culinary school in Napa Valley and puts both degrees to use at this working winery. Start with a tour of the wine making and barrel room where you’ll learn that they harvest their grapes by hand, crush and de-stem them outside and then start the wine making process. San Rafael Winery produces three single varietals (Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot) and nine blends for a total production of 4,000 cases a year.
After the tour head up to the house for a tasting. If it’s a warm day you’ll have the bonus of sitting on the outside deck that looks over acres and acres of grape vines. What sets San Rafael Winery apart from many other wineries in this part of Baja is Ludwig’s commitment to personalized tourism; he and his wife will help organize a day trip to the Ojos Negros area or to Ensenada. Whether you’d like a street food experience in Ensenada or a private dinner cooked by him at the winery, just email and he’ll work with you to create a great Baja experience.
Back to the wine! Tastings start with a plate of cheese, crackers and jam and the only white wine they make—a blend under the Delina label—a crisp and light wine with a fruity aroma and hints of pineapple and peaches. Next we tasted the 2009 Merlot from their premium label: Ojos Negros; an intense flavor with subtle textures. A lot of browns in the color and the weather gives this wine a softer flavor. Our final taste was their flagship Meritage Bordeaux blend called Passion. This was a lighter red with fruit forward flavors. My favorite? The Merlot.
Posada El Rey Sol: Mexico’s Oldest French Restaurant
Make your way back to Ensenada for a dinner that will be a one of a kind experience. It’s not often if ever you’ll get the chance to savour fine French food in Mexico. Not only is El Rey Sol the oldest French restaurant in Mexico (opened in 1947), it’s the oldest restaurant in Ensenada. It’s a fine dining experience that offers the wonderful flavors of French cuisine and a few traditional Mexican dishes.
This is an old school dining experience complete with waiters in suits and table side service. For a perfect dining experience linger and enjoy the meal and service. If you’re adventurous start with the escargot de Bourgogne or the crocodile ribs. If you are a traditionalist, the French onion soup is delicious.
The Caesar salad is made table side and a must – it’s one of the best you’ll find anywhere—in fact they won 1st place for the best Casaer salad in Baja recently.
For the entrée try the Skate (a type of fish) in a burnt butter and caper sauce or one of the many delicious French or Mexican inspired dishes.
Desert should not be missed here—French pastries are hand made in the restaurant and rival anything you would find in Paris.
To accompany your pastries order a Mexican coffee—which is made table side and as much fun to watch being made as it is to drink.
If you are up for a final nightcap head a few blocks to Hussong’s for a Margarita—it’s the birth place of this famous drink.
Story has it that a bartender created a special new concoction for the daughter of a German ambassador and her name was Margarita—and that’s how this famous drink came to be. Hussong’s is the oldest bar in Mexico and was issued the second liquor license ever granted in the country.
Hotel Pasada El Rey Sol
When it’s time to finally rest your head for the evening head to the Hotel Pasada El Rey Sol located on Paseo Calle Primera across from the El Rey Sol restaurant. Rated #2 on Trip Advisor for hotels in Ensenada, they are moderately priced and in a great central location. The owner, Jean-Loup Bitterlin is president of the hotel association in Ensenada and was the first to install electronic locks on the doors and TV’s in the rooms. He is a true pioneer helping to propel many of the changes happening in Ensenada over the past several years including the regentrification of 2nd street (which is a beautiful walk street with cobbled side walks and high end stores and restaurants). So rest assured, you’ll get a great night sleep!
What & Where:
Cava de Marcelo ( http://www.lacavademarcelo.com.mx/) Reservations aren’t necessary, but are appreciated.
From Ensenada, take the road to “Ojos Negros”.
Driving East on the road to “Ojos Negros”. You’ll pass “Ojos Negros” Town on Km 40.
On Km 43.5 turn left, you’ll see a sign from “Rancho La Campana”.
Drive straight on the concrete road. When you see “El Empaque” and “Rancho Buena Vista” the concrete ends, just keep driving.
When you see the orange house just turn left and there you’ll see the entrance of “Rancho La Campana”.
San Rafael Winery (www.bodegassanrafael.com/)
El Rey Sol (www.ensenadaexperience.com/el-rey-sol-restaurant.php)
Hussong’s Cantina (www.cantinahussongs.com/)
Posada El Sol Rey Hotel (www.ensenadaexperience.com/posada-el-rey-sol-hotel.php)
Want learn more about Baja? Check out the Lonely Planet Baja California Guide on Amazon.