Here we go! These two shallow baskets, packed into the trunk of our vehicle, are overflowing with 50 or more different regional varieties of maíces mexicanos nativos (native Mexican corns), ready to head out for wine country: Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California. In the center of the basket on the right, you can see what looks almost like a hot dog. It's actually a mazorca (dried ear of corn): white corn with a few rows of dried kernels removed to expose its red cob! All photos copyright Mexico Cooks! unless otherwise credited.
You might well ask about the point, the vision, the purpose of this corn journey. You can read here Corn: Mexico's Gift to the World, for a quickie refresher about the thousands of years of history of the corn we know today, corn domesticated in what is now Mexico. That long heritage of Mexico's corn is in jeopardy today; Rafael Mier and I were invited to take corn and its crucial importance to the chefs and cooks in Baja California, where little corn is grown and few ancient corns are known.
The Pacific coast, from an overlook near Ensenada, Baja California. Those rings in the water to the far right in the photo? Tuna farms; this offshore area is dotted with them. All photos copyright Mexico Cooks! unless otherwise noted.
During the last 20 or so years, Valle de Guadalupe and the Ensenada area of Baja California have become a Mexican wine and culinary destination, recognized world-wide. With over 100 commercial vineyards, an extraordinary number of high-end restaurants, and the nearby Pacific Ocean, tourism in this part of Baja California is booming. We travelled to this part of Mexico in the interest of educating area chefs, kitchen staffs, and the students at Tijuana's excellent Culinary Arts School about Mexico's ancient history of corn as well as the need to preserve and protect our native grain.
The backstory is that about six months ago, Chris Mejia and Jennifer Kramer of Baja Test Kitchen visited me in Mexico City, saying that they were neophytes to the world of corn and asking for specific information about Mexico's original corns. I gave them a teaching tour through the temporary exhibit called La Milpa at the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares in Coyoacán, in the southern part of Mexico City (on view until November 5, 2017). I also arranged for Chris, Jen, and me to have comida (Mexico's main meal of the day) with my good friend, colleague, and extraordinary corn expert, Rafael Mier. The four of us talked for several hours over comida about Mexico's native corn, about the urgent need to expose the person on the street, the chef in his or her kitchen, and the world in general to the distinct possibility that native corns, first domesticated thousands of years ago in what is now Mexico, are in danger of extinction. Chris and Jen, who live in both Baja California and in San Diego, were truly fascinated with corn's ancient history, with its current danger from hybrids and genetically modified corns, and with the possibility of taking the corn show on the road, as it were, to inform Baja California--where corn has been cultivated very little--about the prospect of losing Mexico's original corns. Within a short time after his and Jen's return to the West Coast, Chris called me to get the ball rolling: "Set some dates when you can come, we're ready to invite restaurant owners, chefs, students, and anyone interested in heirloom corn to meet with Rafa and you in Baja." We arrived in Tijuana on July 22, 2017, knowing that Chris, Jen, and our friend W. Scott Koenig, who was helping them with the planning, had a packed 10-day agenda for us to follow. Ten days, many of them sixteen hours long! At the end, were thrilled, inspired, and exhausted.
First stop, Lechuza Vineyard, Valle de Guadalupe.
Founded in 2003 by Ray and Patty Magnussen, Lechuza’s origin stems from the Valle’s verdant fields, fertile soil, and culture. The desire to share the Valle’s remarkable abundance and warmth is the driving principle behind Lechuza’s winemaking philosophy: to consistently produce top tier wines while promoting sustainability and regional stewardship. Lechuza’s wines strive to reveal the story of its grapes, under the meticulous care of the Magnussen family. Mexico Cooks! met the Magnussen family at Lechuza (the name is that of a local burrowing owl) in February 2017 and felt a strong connection to them and to their work. In mid-March, Ray's family and friends were saddened to our core by the news of his sudden and unexpected death. Ray's daughter, Kris Magnussen, will continue her father's work; the family, the winery, the entire Valle de Guadalupe, and Lechuza's many fans are heartened that she's taking charge.
Grapes at Lechuza Vineyard were just beginning to take on color when we were there near the end of July.
Rafa explains the origin of Mexican regional corns as well as their historic and culinary importance to Ray's wife, Angela (Paty) Magnussen and a number of the staff at Lechuza.
After a few very emotional hours at Lechuza, we once again packed up the corn (you're going to see that phrase a lot during the next month or so) and traveled a short distance to our next stop, Viñas Pijoan.
In the cava at Viñas Pijoan.
Viñas Pijoan is a family-run business, founded in 1999. In that year, Pau Pijoan, a long-time veterinarian, took a course in winemaking that changed not only his life but the lives of his family members. What might simply have been a hobby became a passion, and in 2001, Pijoan's Leonora red placed fifth in a Mexican national wine competition. From then until now, the winery--although still small compared to many in the area--has continued to produce ever-increasing amounts of wine. The number of barrels produced rose 600% between 2005 and 2011!
Maíces nativos mexicanos (Mexico's native corn) on the sun-dappled terrace at Viñas Pijoan.
We and the Pijoan family were enormously excited by our time spent together. Paula Pijoan, Sr. Pijoan's daughter, who heads up the family vineyard's gardening and other botanical needs and is an active plant preservationist, was thrilled to have the native corns visit the winery. I'm sure the corns were as happy as we were to be there!
Corn, the star of the show! Left to right around the table: Paula Pijoan, Mexico Cooks!, Jennifer Kramer, chef Diana Kusters, Chris Mejia, the lovely and laughing Leonora Pijoan, Pau Pijoan, Rafael Mier and at the far right...oh no! I've forgotten his name. I'm sorry!
Diana Kusters, chef at Salvia at Viñas Pijoan, with Mexico Cooks!.
During the course of a long, leisurely afternoon, of course there was food. Viñas Pijoan is the site of Salvia, a charming outdoor restaurant, named for a Baja California variety of sage. Chef Diana Kusters is in charge of the kitchen.
Heavenly bruschetta, with crusty, dense bread, Baja California grown and pressed olive oil and tomatoes grown in the Viñas Pijoan garden.
Tostada de atún (fresh Baja California tuna) with chile serrano, broccoli sprouts, and chile de árbol. Really spectacular!
Salmas (see recommendation below) with fresh Baja California tuna and sprouts.
If you haven't yet tried Salmas, oven-baked corn crackers topped with a sprinkle of sea salt, look for them in your local supermarket. They're better-tasting and healthier than any corn chip you've ever eaten. (This is not a paid advertisement--Mexico Cooks! does not accept advertising. This is just my personal recommendation, I've been eating Salmas for years.)
Portobello mushroom ceviche with avocados, sprouts, thinly sliced radishes, and calabacitas (squash similar to zucchini).
Enjoy this short interview with Pau Pijoan as he talks about Baja California, his wines, and his winery. Video courtesy Grape Collective.
Next week, we return to Valley de Guadalupe to have breakfast at La Cocina de Doña Esthela. Doña Esthela is legendary--you'll love meeting her and seeing the photos of the incredible breakfast we ate. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water!
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