Thursday 30th June
Well it’s safe to say that I had the most wonderful day today. After looking online for things to see and do, I discovered that a mere 20 miles or so east of Ensenada, in the Ojos Negro region, was a cheese cave! Being the only cheese cave in Latin America, and an avid cheese lover, I had to go and check it out, and I’m so pleased I did. It was a glorious ride though the mountains, and a perfect temperature, as occasional blasts of cool air breezed through my mesh jacket and across my face.
It was so good to be back on the bike after several days lazing around, and it turned out that it was just what I needed. It got greener and hotter as I continued, and after being waved through a routine military checkpoint, I turned down a dirt and gravel road and made my way to Rancho La Campana, the home of La Cava De Marcelo. I didn’t really want to be riding off road, because of my back, but as it meant I got to eat some cheese it was well worth the few miles and wobbles that I had to endure.
Although the cave was only built in 2006, and opened to the public in 2008, the Ramonetti family have been producing cheese at Rancho La Campana for over 100 years. Pedro Ramonetti, a Swiss-Italian immigrant, came to Baja California in 1911, and settled with his family in the town of Real del Castillo. One year later he began producing cheese and gave it the family name, Quesos de Ramonetti. Marcelo Castro is now the owner of the farm, and the fourth generation cheesemaker, as his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father all produced all-natural cheeses. I was lucky enough to get to spend some time with Marcelo, but I’ll get in to that a bit later!
The cheeses are made from unpasteurized milk and no preservatives, and the flavour of the cheese is born from the area’s water, which comes from the mountains; the pastures, which are not fertilized or treated with insecticides; and the earth, which is rich in minerals. The farm currently produces 400 kilos of cheese a day, and the cave can store up to 10,000 cheeses, which is a lot of cheese! It provides the perfect conditions for the ageing process, like conservation, moisture, temperature and darkness, and behind the glass the humidity is set to a whopping 95%. The cave wasn’t at capacity when I visited, but that was a good thing for the poor bugger who has to turn over every single cheese twice a day, by hand!
Cava De Marcelo is in the most beautiful setting, surrounded by open green farmland, trees and flowers. Cows grazed on fresh organic pasture, and the whole place had the most relaxing and tranquil feel about it.
I was the only visitor there, and a member of staff came over to greet me and let me know that he would be my guide. Thankfully he spoke excellent English, but I wouldn’t have minded having the tour in Spanish, even though I can’t speak that much of it. I find it rather entertaining trying to work out what’s being said, although I do think it’s funny that you could be having a conversation with someone, both think that you know what each other is talking about, then leave and both of you have had a completely different conversation! My guides name was Oscar, although I later found out that his nickname was ‘Pato’, which means duck in Spanish. This is because Oscar is the translator, or traductor in Spanish. I found that rather amusing, although I’m not sure if Oscar did!
After changing out of my bike gear and slipping in to something a little more comfortable, we started the tour of the dairy, and Oscar explained the milking and cheese making process. The cows get milked twice a day (at 5pm and 5am), and in 5-7 minutes they get around 15 litres out of every cow!! Needless to say that the cows are rather tired after this process, so they’re moved out in to the field to eat grass and hay and recuperate.
Once they have both batches of milk together, they set to work making the cheese, which can take anything up to 8 hours. First they leave the milk so the fat settles on the top, and that gets skimmed to make butter. Rennet is then added, and this curdles the milk. A very simple metal cheese wire contraption is then used to cut up the curds, and they are separated from the whey to make different cheeses.
They use different moulds and a very basic press with weights to press the cheese, and although this a very simple and primitive way of doing it, it certainly does the job.
While some of the cheese is kept fresh, the rest is moved in to the cave to age and mature. That’s also where the next part of the tour took place, and the part I’d been most looking forward to… the tasting!! I have to admit that it looked a bit sad with my table for one, but I didn’t mind, in fact I found it quite amusing. You get used to eating alone when travelling solo, and I actually rather like it, it’s a completely different experience.
I got a glass of very tasty red vino, some bread, some fig and cinnamon jam (really good), a piece of bread with butter and ricotta on it, and a wooden board with 4 slices of fresh cheese, 3 pieces of aged cheese, and some sliced apple to clean the palette. The fresh was plain, basil, black pepper and Rosemary, and my favourite was definitely the black pepper. Then I had the aged cheese. The first was aged for 6 months, and expecting to love it I took a big bite and must have looked like a bulldog chewing a wasp (thankfully the two staff were sat behind me). I could have easily been eating one of Ed’s socks after a full day of riding (sorry Marcelo!), but being polite and not wanting to leave it I wrapped it up in some bread, smothered it in fig jam, and forced it down with a gulp of wine and a piece of apple. I was then dreading the next bit, aged 1 year, but was very pleased when I discovered that it was really delicious, nice and strong and tangy, and was actually my favourite in the end. The next was aged 2 years, which was nice, but for me was not as tasty as the 1 year one.
Although the tour and tasting for $10 had maxed out my budget, I’d read that the food they produced there was delicious, so I took the executive decision to blow some more money and treat myself to lunch. I’m a real foodie, I love the stuff, and my one downfall when it comes to my budget on this trip is definitely going to be good tasty food! It’s where me and Ed differ again. He would rather eat a cheap beige meal and stay in a hotel, whereas I would rather have a slap-up gourmet meal and camp. Well actually I’d rather have a slap-up gourmet meal AND stay in a hotel, but I definitely don’t have the money for that, at least not every night!
As no-one else was there I ended up sitting outside with the owner, Marcelo, and had such a lovely time chatting with his very limited English and my developing Spanish. I didn’t know what to have as everything on the menu looked great, but after saying that I liked fish they suggested the blue fin tuna sashimi, but they also wanted me to try the cured sardines so they gave me some of those too. Both were a taste sensation, and I was left making sounds that those ladies make in those naughty films, with the only difference being that my groans were genuine.
The sardines were absolutely out of this world, with loads of ginger (my favourite), and they came with bread, a cream cheese thing with herbs, and this really delicious smoked tomato dish. Next up was the tuna sashimi which was the best I’d ever had, again with lots of ginger, and it was so tender that it just melted in my mouth. I’d nearly finished the massive plate when Marcelo called the waiter over and ordered two desserts, one for him and one for me, and once that arrived more appreciative groans came from my direction. It was raspberries and strawberries topped with this delicious creamy concoction, which was then topped with walnuts. Not too sweet, just right. Every bite had been an absolute delight for me and my taste-buds, and I sat there feeling very content indeed.
Marcelo’s sister and husband turned up and joined us as my coffee arrived, and we had a great time chatting, speaking Spanglish and having a laugh. They ordered several dishes and insisted that I tried them, but as I was quite full I declined. However they wouldn’t take no for an answer, so with my easily twisted arm I sat up a bit straighter to make some room and happily obliged, which I’m very glad I did. First was a clam salad which was really good, but then I tried their risotto which was pink and mixed with cheese, and topped with the most delicious scallops I’ve ever had. After that I told Marcelo that I’d rather like to stay for the week and eat my way through the whole menu, as everything so far had been incredible.
Unfortunately for me though I couldn’t, and as the sun was getting low I had to leave and make my way back to Ensenada. I got up and asked where to pay, and Marcelo smiled and waved his hand, and said that I didn’t need to. I couldn’t believe it. I insisted but he wouldn’t accept a cent, and I was left feeling really touched by the whole experience. I was worried about it taking me way over my budget, and in the end it didn’t cost me anything. I had the most wonderful time, a perfect afternoon, and to top it all off he invited me to his other restaurant in town for breakfast in the morning. Needless to say I’m very much looking forward to that!
It’s funny because it made me realise just how brilliant solo travel can be, especially as a female. Had I been with Ed I don’t think it would have been anywhere near the special experience that it was for me. I feel very fortunate to have had their company and to have had such an enjoyable time. I left with that warm fuzzy feeling of contentment that you get from such simple pleasures as good food and good company in a beautiful setting. It was most definitely one of those life is good days 🙂