Wine and cheese are two words usually associated with places like Napa Valley and France, not the dry dusty climes of Baja California. But that is exactly where I was recently found sipping wine, enjoying a nice craft beer, a wonderful lunch and some incredible cheese. This is absolutely a foodie adventure, just a few miles south of the border.
People are always asking me about interesting side trips when they visit the Ensenada area. The wine country in the Valle de Guadalupe is a no brainer, but foodies should not miss an opportunity to visit a local cheese making operation known locally as La Cava de Marcelo or La Cava de Queso. Just to confuse you a little more, the location is known on Google Maps as Rancho Campana.
Run by fourth generation cheese maker Marcelo Castro, this is one experience you’ll be able to brag about for years.
La Cava de Marcelo is located southeast of Ensenada on Route 3, the road to Ojos Negros. Keep your eyes open for small signs directing you, as you’ll have to make a left turn off the main road right around KM 43. From there, follow the signs for another 7 KM until you arrive at the ranch. You’ll know you’re there when you see the big red barn and the Holstein cows, a sure sign of dairy happenings.
If you’ve made reservations, you’ll be greeted by Marcelo himself. He’ll give you the grand tour and explain more than you could ever have imagined about Baja California, Ojos Negros was the second city in the area, and of course, cheese. Seriously, think about this… a family with Swiss and Italian roots, making cheese in Mexico for almost a hundred years! You’ll see the passion Marcelo has for his craft as he shares about his herd, shows you where the cheesemaking takes place and then takes you to the “cava” or cellar for samples.I’m not sure what I was expecting. The building was rather nondescript and kept locked. As Marcelo opened the door I knew this was something different from anything I had ever experienced in Mexico. The cool, dark and damp atmosphere hit me almost immediately upon entering. We listened as Marcelo shared his long family history in the area, having descended from Swiss Italian immigrants
But the allure of the cellar was calling us and we quickly headed downstairs into the semi dark area that held his treasures… the cheese rounds.
Arrayed on our tables was a sampling of cheeses and a nice glass of red wine as an accompaniment. We of course added a little kick to the party with some rare mezcal, courtesy of Erick ‘Almamezcalera’ Rodriguez. tasting cheeses aged up to 2 years, my personal favorite was the one aged for a year and a half.
After the tour, which takes about an hour and a half with the tasting, you can stay for lunch, or, if you need to make your cruise ship departure, get on the road. Just make sure you take some of that delicious cheese home with you. They have a small store on site that stocks all the varieties you sampled, locally produced jellies, brittles and a few other goodies.
But, if the weather is good, you should stay for lunch. The day we were there, the weather was absolutely perfect. Sitting outside as the sun was falling on a not too hot afternoon, was simply a wonderful way to end the day. Our meals were great, perfectly prepared and we had a great chance to talk with many of the employees as they were shared about their jobs, lives, cheese and food.
We enjoyed wonderful oysters for an appetizer, a great salad and the seared tuna, cooked to perfection. And of course a locally made craft brew IPA and more mezcal! Truly a great side trip if you are willing to get off the beaten track and experience a little bit more of My Mexico!
Should you go? Of course, but understand this… it’s a bit of a hike out there so plan ahead. The standard hours are 1:00 – 6:00pm, Thursday to Sunday. From Ensenada, it will take the average non Mexico experienced driver an hour to get there. It’s an easy road, but if you are a nervous driver, it’ll take a little longer. Some of the journey is on a dirt road. It will be no issue at all for your car. I had a Hyundai Elantra and it never even blinked.
Cost… For the tour, $10.00. Lunch for two, no drinks, about $40.00 – $60.00US depending on what you order.
Cruisers… If you’re ship departs Ensenada at 5:00, here’s how you make this work. Eat lunch in town and hire a local taxi for the drive and invite them to take the tour with you. Afterwards, buy your cheeses to take home and hightail it back to your ship. If you are going with a good group of friends, you might be able to contact Marcelo ahead of time and ask if you can come early.
If you are on the ships that leave at 8:00, you’re golden. Take a taxi, enjoy the scenery and stay for lunch there. When you return, you’ll be the envy of everyone else on board.
La Cava de Marcelo, KM 43, Carretera 3 to Ojos Negros and San Felipe. Telephone – 646.173.4579