Two gourmet gems in the wilds of Baja California

The wild terrain of Mexico’s oldest wine region, the Valle de Guadalupe, is an unexpected treasure trove of rustic restaurants offering some really very refined cuisine

Drew Deckman has a painterly eye for plating
Drew Deckman has a painterly eye for plating

When the driver of your 4x4 scratches his head, points out of the window and says, “Funny, I’d have sworn there wasn’t a road there last week,” you know you are in pioneer country. I was rattling through Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe, in search (as ever) of lunch and a glass of wine, along a trail that had apparently just been blazed.

Guadalupe is one of the oldest wine regions in the Americas and lush vineyards lurk among the boulder-strewn hills and sandy valley floors. There were a dozen or so wineries here 20 years ago; now there are more than 100, as well as a clutch of boutique hotels and terrific restaurants, but the valley retains a rough-hewn, eclectic charm.

At Vena Cava – an extraordinary winery fashioned from upturned fishing boats by British expats Phil and Eileen Gregory – a taco truck is parked in the front yard; beyond that is a quirky hotel and gourmet restaurant, Corazón de Tierra. The restaurant is a sleek sort of shack, with an open kitchen at one end and a glass wall at the other, overlooking the garden in which much of chef Diego Hernández’s produce is grown: sweet little beetroots, for instance, paired with a tangy, intense garlic purée, topped with shavings of a pungent local cheese; or a smooth, earthy slick of globe artichoke purée with richly flavoured wild partridge; or grilled kumamoto oysters with sage and hazelnut butter. Hernández’s food delights the eye as much as the palate, while Phil Gregory’s marvellously eccentric wines are the perfect accompaniment.

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At Deckman’s, a few miles east, chef-proprietor Drew Deckman has taken the idea of an open kitchen to extremes: only a tin roof shelters him from the elements as he grills huge chunks of meat over glowing coals, simultaneously spinning pans around a plethora of parillas (grills), a fire extinguisher hanging at a jaunty angle from a fat-trunked tree. If Fred Flintstone had a diploma from Le Cordon Bleu, his kitchen would look like this.

The rustic setting among the vines – hay bales, straw-strewn floor, lightbulbs slung from the rafters – belies some highly refined cooking: Deckman has a painterly eye for plating. Kumiai oysters – raw, sweet and meaty – are dressed with shallot vinegar spiked with pink Peruvian pepper, scattered with amethyst-hued borage flowers and served on a bed of coarse salt; fabulously smoky and savoury local quail sits alongside curls of butternut squash, bergamot adding a citric tang; and wilted spring onions snake through slices of rosy, perfectly grilled ribeye. 

Deckman’s culinary travels have taken him all over the world – working for Paul Bocuse in France, earning a Michelin star in Germany, stints in Hawaii and Shanghai – but, like his pioneering fellow chefs in the Valle de Guadalupe, he now seems thoroughly at home on the range. As long as the range is wood-fired, naturally.

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