A bountiful Baja garden
Lisa Hilton enjoys sublime food and hibiscus margaritas on an enchanting Mexican ranch
Greatly though I admired the late A.A. Gill, he had a bit of a blind spot when it came to Mexican food. “It isn’t pants”, he once wrote. “It’s nappy, filled with what nappies are meant to be filled with.” None of his excursions into what he referred to as “Sancho Panza’s pantry” ever resulted in anything but disgust, though since Sancho was Spanish, not Mexican, perhaps it just goes to show that we’re all of us provincials when it comes to foreign food.
Perhaps if Mr Gill had ever dined at Topolabampo, Rich Bayless’s veteran and much-lauded restaurant in Chicago, he might have changed his mind. One of the most revelatory food experiences I have ever been lucky enough to enjoy was dinner there in the late Nineties. Until then, the nearest I’d got to Mexican food was the fluorescent nachos at TGI Friday’s in Warrington. Bayless’s food was a synaptic explosion, blending ingredients which I’d never heard of into depths of flavour as surprising as they were entirely novel.
It’s all so artfully artless that you feel you’ve stumbled across an idyllic commune rather than a restaurant
I had no idea that Mexican could involve blue-corn tortilla with pheasant and cured egg yolk, or seared octopus with escabeche, or that varieties of chili could ascend from deeply smoky and mellow to startling reworks of citrus, joyously brattling and burning across the palate. Since then of course, proper Mexican food (as opposed to the repulsive Tex-Mex slop to which Mr Gill persistently reduced it) has become a thing in the UK, not least thanks to Thomasina Miers’s sturdy Wahaca chain, and no critic worth the salt on their margarita would mistake an ancho for an arbol.
Yet while you can now get a breakfast burrito even at Gatwick airport, Mexican puddings still don’t really do it for me. Too sweet, too gooey, too many variants on rice pudding or airy but flavourless sponge.
Flora Farms was founded in 1996 in San José del Cabo on the Pacific Baja peninsula. What began as an organic garden serving local restaurants was expanded ten years ago into Flora’s Field Kitchen, which serves vegetables, meats, charcuterie and breads all produced on the farm and its 150-acre ranch. Hidden on a dirt track far from the commercial resort of Cabo San Luca, the site also includes holiday cottages, shops and a spa, though it’s all so artfully artless that you feel you’ve stumbled across an idyllic commune rather than a restaurant.
Wildflowers in jam-jars, pared back rustic furniture — it would be twee if it wasn’t so damn enchanting. Fairy-lit paths twine through the vegetable gardens, birdcages hang from trees and lovely people who look so healthy and enthusiastic that their veins must run with green juice bring you hibiscus margeritas as the sunset frames the palm trees against the mountains. The setting is so perfect that one would forgive the kitchen pretty much anything, but the charm of Flora’s Field Kitchen almost belies the fact that chef Guillermo Tellez is running a serious operation.
Beef is not offered here, as the dry environment of Baja renders it unsustainable, but no one could miss steak when there is such fabulous home-cured fennel sausage on offer. I tried it on one of the 15 varieties of pizza, far superior to anything I’ve ever had in Naples. The “Walk through the Garden” salad was just that, the most perfect new vegetables simply showcased with a little oil and fresh herbs, a rainbow of colour, texture and contrast that tasted too fine to possibly be good for you.
Asparagus gratin was creamy and subtle, with a vinously delicate bouquet of grass and almonds. Speaking of wine, Mexican (of which Baja produces 90 per cent) is truly excellent. Viniculture was introduced by the Spanish in the fifteenth century, and though the industry has only found its feet in the last 20 years, the wines are, if not discreet, hugely worth trying. During my stay I tried two standout varieties from the Magoni winery, a Nebbiolo with the oral density of a violet cream and a stonking Merlot Malbec, all smooth liquorice and cassis.
My delightful hosts were keen for me to try Tellez’s version of traditional Mexican flan, a dish which convinced me that Mr Gill was talking through his nappy. Flan is a staple variant of crème caramel, and I’ve tried many a starchy, glutinously disappointing variant, but this was — I’d say sublime if it didn’t sound so twatty. Ambrosial.
Condensed milk is the key to the dessert, mixed with variable quantities of milk or cream, eggs, sugar and vanilla. I don’t know what Guillermo was doing to the Carnation back in the kitchens, but if you ever had the opportunity to take a bite at the thigh of Titian’s Venus, it might just taste like this. It took me 27 hours to get to Baja, and I’d go back in a heartbeat to eat at Flora’s again. If there is such a thing as a heaven for food critics, I hope that the an would be on the menu.
Flora’s Field Kitchen, San José del Cabo, Baja California Sur, Mexico. www.flora-farms.com
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