We got out of Dodge. It was time for a mid-week getaway and I had Baja on the brain. We drove the 3.5 hours to San Diego, stopped to get scammed by insurance peddlers, and slipped into Tijuana with ease. I had never been to the Valle de Guadalupe before. After years of day-dreaming, minimal research and the kind words of an experienced friend, we were on our way. I found myself weaving into a verdant valley, in between rock walls dotted with bright flowers and succulents. It was springtime in the valley and the frogs had written several songs about it.
We camped some nights and splurged some others (a balanced diet). From our fuzzy green campground we walked 100 yards down a dirt road and stood by the gate of a house for our first wine tasting in the valley. No one would have noticed us if not for the excitement of the two dogs on the property. A man approached to appease them. We were told to ask for Juan and fortunately this was him. He invited us in and with my meager Spanish abilities we toured the small property jam-packed with fruit and flowers. As it turns out pride needs no translation; Juan was full of it. We tasted wine and, to my delight, four different types of homemade jams. We bought some bottles and jars, singing our love for the marmalada de guyaba. On the way out, Juan showed us his seven different varieties of guava tree. He picked two from a tree unseasonably loaded with guava fruit the shape and size of pears (we later feasted on them, face first, in a Tijuana parking lot for fear they would be taken away from us). They were wonderful, almost savory.
As charming as our wine experience was, I was there for the food. It’s not fair to say that the food coming out of the valley is evocative of California Cuisine. More accurately, it seems what California Cuisine wants to be. At every meal I was staring at a farm. Servers were consistently spotted plucking lavender flowers for garnish just before serving. Not a microgreen in sight. At a hotel breakfast, the chef appeared at our table delivering radishes he picked that morning suggesting to eat them with the butter they made earlier that week. We had a most memorable meal in an outdoor kitchen stoked entirely by wood sourced from a native tree across the way. For dessert there was a homemade ice cream made with the fruit from those same trees. When I asked for mezcal to cap my night, I swear I saw the server grin. He returned, full of that same pride, carrying a bottle and a small plate with maybe the most beautiful orange arrangement I could have imagined. Alongside the citrus were perfumed blossoms and an arc of sal de gusano. “I just picked this orange from our tree,” making a hand motion to show us how he did it. “There is nothing more fresh.”