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.
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.