Photos by Bill Veale Graphics
Are you hankering for a new Baja adventure less traveled and close to home? If you love natural and aged cheeses, paired with a fine wine in a beautiful setting, put La Cava de Marcelo on your Baja can’t wait to do list.
It is a twenty-five mile drive east of Ensenada, on a winding road through the foothills, until Valle Ojos Negros opens up like a dry basin extending into startling green fields. This is the valley of the cheese makers. It is said that there are at least 15 ranchos in production, however only La Cava de Marcelo welcomes visitors.
It all started with happy cows one hundred years ago. A young Swiss-Italian immigrant bought the land in this valley and later became a Mexican citizen. He chose the German Holstein cow for milk production because of its flavor over the Swiss Jersey cow. M.R. Ramonetti used this meticulous formula for the production of the best quality of aged cheeses. It is a matter of the correct blending of all of nature’s factors and the soil itself. So, in the end the flavors carry the unique characteristics of the area. Marcelo Castro is the fourth generation of cheese makers and has carried his great-grandfathers all-natural recipe into today. There are no hormones added and Marcelo does not compromise flavor by pasteurizing. However, a state of the art milking machines and stainless steel processing vats have been added.
The fragrance of alfalfa and healthy cows float out on the breeze as the smart and articulate staff take you on a tour of the barns and milking area, as well as the small spotless processing plant. The cows actually know when it is their turn to be milked, so besides being happy cows they are also smart. There is a special process and time of feeding, during each day, and the cows know it. When they have done their duty and given of their milk, they are put out to pasture where clover is found. Fresh alfalfa and clover, as well as hay, all add to the flavor of the cheeses.
A hush greets you as you are guided down several flights of stairs deep into the earth. There is an ancient feeling in the flagstone lined walls where the temperature and moisture never varies. At this stage in the aging process a consistent temperature is vital. Tables are set up surrounded by glassed-in shelves, holding hundreds of cheese rounds in different stages of aging. A large round of natural wood is the table’s centerpiece with the seven cheeses placed in order for tasting. The first four are the fresh cheeses; beginning with the natural flavor, then followed by a choice of basil, pepper or rosemary. These are followed by three aged cheeses of six months, one year and three years. To cleanse the palate, you may want to pair this tasting with the rich flavor and mellow finish of Romanetti 1911; a blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet and Petite Sirah. The lovely young guide informs us that each of the hundreds of cheese rounds have to be "flipped" once a day. It seems, without flipping the cheese, it will not stay in its form, but start to ooze out into a pancake. It was a wild thought and before I did the math, I asked, how many times a round of 4-year old cheese had to be flipped and I wondered out loud if there was an actual job title called Cheese Flipper? Laughing, our guide said it was actually a great job to have on very hot days during the summer months.
In this pastoral setting with its expanse of manicured lawns and old pepper trees shading the picnic tables, makes for a relaxing afternoon. There is a natural grace that comes with a family owned business, where visitors feel very welcomed and there is no rush to leave. Marcelo and the staff are ever present and their attention is refreshing. There is an intriguing lunch menu that includes such things as fresh marlin and duck tortas. Of course there is the ever present cheese and wine. The day ends with all senses being filled and refreshed. You are guaranteed to leave happy and it started with the happy cows.
Directions: Dropping into the Ojos Negros valley you will come to a Pemex station, proceed past the turn off to Ojos Negros for 2.5 miles and watch for a sign to left turn. Continue for 4.4 miles. This is a nice paved road for a distance and will turn into graded gravel for a couple of miles. Hours are 1pm to 6pm and they are closed Mondays. 646-117-0239
If you are unable to make the trip all the way into the valley to see the happy cows, Marcelo has a new restaurant in Ensenada, Casa Marcelo. This is an easy jaunt off the main boulevard on Av. Riveroll between 7th and 8th streets. Here you can have a cheese tasting for $4 or pair it with their Ramonetti 1911 for $10. One local says, "Casa Marcelo is really a little slice of La Cava de Marcelo." Hours 8 a.m. ~ 6 p.m. Closed Tuesdays 646-117-0293