Unexpected Baja: The Cheeses
Photos by Trina and Greg
Perhaps even more inesperada than a Baja beach climate requiring wool hats, wool socks, gloves, neck gaiters, ear muffs and two insulating layers UNDER a nano puff UNDER a biggest-ever down coat was the cheese. It turns out that homemade, fresh, natural cheese is just a regular part of simple daily life in Baja. As with so many of life's best adventures, we stumbled into this one somewhat clumsily. We'd been told by Alfredo and his five dogs - one of whom was named Mayonesa (Mayonnaise) -- that the nearby town had a market called Tienda Comunitario. After a few passes up and down the street, we finally saw what looked to be a delapidated, boarded up, abandoned looking store with the words Tienda Comunitario roughly hand painted on the front. By then we were on the wrong side of the street so decided to go get our water jugs filled and come back to the tienda when we'd be going in the right direction.
As Greg filled our water jugs, I asked a local woman if the Tienda Comunitario was open. She said it was. I asked, "Yes? Today? It looks like it might be closed?" She assured me it was open, so we drove back to it to find that it was indeed delapidated, boarded up and abandoned. Given that there's always the possibility that I've ever so slightly misunderstood someone's Spanish, or directions in general regardless of language, we asked a third person about the tienda, got another set of directions, this time with more gesticulating, and a new word to look for on the signage: DESCUENTO, meaning discount.
Had it not been for the giant "DESCUENTO" under the new store location's much smaller "Tienda Comunitario", we'd never have realized that the partially fenced dirt yard populated with free-roaming chickens, an empty, run-down dog house and a row of broken down old cars was not someone's residence, but the local market. We pulled in, missing the chickens, and parked in the line of dead cars. Inside the store, we quickly found what we were looking for, and as Greg was paying, I was still nosing around, just enjoying the unfamiliar grocery store stock when I noticed, in a cooler by the front door, in amongst a tub of hot dogs and cartons of milk, what appeared to be crudely shaped wedges of a fresh-looking, homemade-looking cheese.
Not wanting to be the gawking, entitled, photo-snapping gringa, I tried to sneak a discreet photo of the lovely cheese, but, alas, was caught by a nice gentleman who couldn't figure out why I was taking pictures inside his refrigerator. Abashed, I explained that the cheese looked beautiful and delicious, asked if it was for sale, and asked permission to photograph it. We quickly lapsed into a conversation about cheesemaking, including a diversion about goats and cows, in which I learned that he himself was the proud maker of this particular cow’s milk cheese. He then led me over to another refrigerator wherein there was a large, gorgeous block of goat’s milk cheese with a darkening, firm rind indicating that it had been aging for a while (I never did ask how long).
Thrilled by the discovery and charmed by the cheesemaker, we bought a chunk of the aged, salty goat cheese and ate it with slightly sweet, homemade biscuits from the same tienda, transforming our usual roadtrip fare of (ordinary) bread and (ordinary) cheese into a wholly unordinary gustatory indulgence.
To our delight, this first experience of finding amazing homemade cheese in a most unexpected setting repeated itself as our journey took us deeper into Baja. Dusty roadside gas station markets, with their predictable convenience store supply of plastic wrapped candy and junk food would have, in the beer cooler or under a mesh cover next to the Ho-Hos and lolly pops, wheels of beautiful cheese made by a local family.
Lonely dirt roads gridding out farm lands would suddenly sprout hand-painted signs pointing the way to a farm where fresh cheese could be found.
Eventually the signs led us to La Cava de Marcelo, a fancy, very first-world, fourth generation dairy farm with a recently built cheese cave where we, not having had a proper bath in well over a week and sporting dirt-streaked, dog-haired camping clothes, stumbled into an elegant afternoon wine-and-cheese tasting patronized by clean, spiffily-dressed city slickers from nearby Ensenada. Given our condition, we opted out of the sit down tasting but did partake of a quick private tour of the cheese cave. Despite being uncertain as to whether we were enjoying gracious and forgiving hospitality or a security escort ensuring we didn’t touch anything or frighten their cleaner, better dressed customers, we enjoyed seeing what was truly the anomaly of our entire Baja experience.