Some people go to Dolores Hidalgo to dig up the roots of the Mexican revolution. Some people go to Dolores Hidalgo for the talavera pottery. A few go for the ice cream. A lot go for the wineries. And almost everyone who goes there goes to Carnitas Vicente. Stan and Peggy Jones had agreed to chauffeur Don Day and Don Day’s Wife the forty or so kilometres from San Miguel de Allende to Dolores Hidalgo. Don Day’s Wife was trying to find the location of a ceramics maker who could create some new pieces to match a set we’d inherited when we bought a home in San Miguel. Don Day was trying to remember the location of Carnitas Vicente. I think there’s more than one Carnitas Vicente in Dolores. Though I don’t think they have the same owners. Stan and Peggy had been there before and, with a little teamwork, there it was. The big building we were looking for. Salon Bicentenario on Avenida Norte. Carnitas. The word translates into English as little meats. I had never seen the word until I came to central Mexico. Carnitas just didn’t exist in the days when Don Day used to do those sunburn, shooters and sand in the shoes holidays to the country’s east or west coasts. Carnitas don’t seem to have existed for that long in central Mexico either. I couldn’t find any reference to them in any Mexican cookbook published before the seventies. And the two biggest champions of Mexican cuisine, Diane Kennedy and Rick Bayless, allot less than a single page to carnitas in their early books. I’ve often seen the term estilo Michoacan in restaurants so I’m guessing it was the state of Michoacan to the west of Dolores Hidalgo where they originated. But I’ve never seen a town with more carnitas shops than Dolores Hidalgo. And I’ve never heard of a carnitas restaurant more famous than Carnitas Vicente. Merriam-Webster defines carnal as “given to crude bodily pleasures and appetites” and carnitas does seem to bring out the animal in Don Day (and Stan Jones). You suddenly find yourself attacking the plate and eating much more meat than you normally would. Traditionally carnitas are ordered by weight (they’re 240 pesos a kilo or a little less than $20 at Carnitas Vicente) and a kilo is usually good for four people and a decent size doggie bag. For some reason that Don Day has never been able to figure out (it’s almost as bewildering as the source of the phrase the whole enchilada), almost all places that cook and sell carnitas are takeout places. They may have a table or two but that’s usually all. Carnitas Vicente is different. It does a lot of takeout business but it also does a lot of sitdown business. Carnitas Vicente was started 34 years ago by a former butcher with movie star looks called Vicente Mendez and, though he wasn’t there when we had lunch with Stan and Peggy Jones, he usually is. It’s a place you’d call typically Mexican with furniture with beer logos, A Coca Cola cooler, tartan tablecloths, murals that tell the story of independence, and a television which seems to be perpetually tuned to a never ending soap opera. The restaurant sells a few other dishes, including barbacoa, but one look around at the tables and you’ll see that everyone seems to come for carnitas. When Don Day thinks of carnitas, he thinks of two kinds of carnitas. There’s the real kind and the not so real kind. The not so real kind are the kind that Don Day might make at home, using a pork shoulder or butt and simmering it in water with spices. The real kind are what most carnitas restaurants, including Carnitas Vicente, make. They’re what make Don Day proclaim, “Praise The Lard”. Carnitas Vicente simmers almost the entire pig in a steel cauldron of rendered fat, adds such unusual ingredients as oranges, Coca Cola and evaporated milk and are much more adventurous in their spice selection with cumin, cinnamon and cloves often added. Vicente Mendez takes a lot of pride in his selection of the animals he chooses. He only uses pigs from Mexico’s pork capital Irapuato and, in a week, the restaurant will go through more than fifty of them creating the porcine pleasures of carnitas. If you look like a typical tourist (as Don Day always does), your Carnitas Vicente server might bring you the mostly whiter, drier, leaner parts from the loin. If you simply ask though, he will bring you a choice of whatever part of the animal you want. Don Day likes the ribs, leg or shoulder with their extra fat and bones plus a little crispy chicharron, the skin of the pig. Thinking that Stan and Peggy Jones would have more pedestrian tastes (I should have known better), Don Day didn’t ask for any special parts of the pig. The ribs and shoulder could have had wings the way they flew off the plate. Don Day now knew the real meaning of keeping up with the Joneses. Carnitas should be served with tortillas, limes, chopped onions, cilantro, a red sauce and a green sauce. Carnitas Vicente arrive at the table with all of those plus a cactus paddle salad and a bowl of too hot for Don Day to handle jalapenos. We all agreed that guacamole is a perfect partner for carnitas and ordered that as well. Now what makes Carnitas Vicente what foodies like Don Day call a destination restaurant? A place that’s worth driving almost an hour for. Well good carnitas should be moist and juicy. One checkmark. They should have a little crisp on the outside. Two checkmarks. They should be falling apart, melt in your mouth tender. Three checkmarks. And, other than salt, they should have very little flavor from the other ingredients in the pot so the pork is the prime taste. Checkmark number four. That’s four for four and why Carnitas Vicente is the pleasure palace of pork. Carnitas Vicente is located at Avenida Norte 65 in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico. They are open daily from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm.
I’d passed it perhaps twenty, maybe even thirty times over the years. But today we were actually going. It was our final and only destination. The restaurant had intrigued me every one of those times we’d passed by. There were more signs outside than in that old Five Man Electrical Band song. With one word that always stuck out. The word was avestruz. Don Day had no idea what it meant. Curiosity not only lured the cat, it lured that old dog Don Day.
Though it’s not close to many people’s San Miguel homes, it’s reasonably close to Don Day’s. Close enough that Don Day’s Wife and I decided to walk. Our planned lunch included coctels de mariscos and on the way we passed two other places with signs advertising mariscos. This didn’t go unnoticed by Don Day’s Wife.
“I don’t really see the need to walk much further”, Don Day`s Wife said.
“But this place is really funky looking”, I pleaded to her, purposefully forgetting that funky isn’t even in her vocabulary when it comes to adjectives modifying places to dine.
“Like a food stand that’s grown roots”, I continued, digging myself into a deeper hole and generating one of her roll the eyes looks. “Besides, you can already see the sign through the trees.”
The restaurant is called Rincon Nayarita and it’s on Boulevard de la Conspiracion (how could any place be uninteresting on a street name like that). Boulevard de la Conspiracion is what Salida a Queretaro becomes after you pass the roundabout where Senor Allende still has his head and is still riding his horse. In simpler and more exact terms, it’s just down a bit from being directly across the street from San Miguel’s Tuesday Market.
The first thing you notice when you walk in across the rough cement floor is nothing. Because this place is dark with the only natural light coming through the door behind you. The seating is on mostly blue plastic tables and chairs advertising Corona beer. It’s not a lot different from the white plastic tables and chairs advertising Corona beer that are the standard in most other low-end Mexican restaurants. The blue Corona furniture though doesn’t so much advertise the beer as pour it down your throat.
The word Nayarita obviously pays homage to the State of Nayarit on the west coast of Mexico. It’s a state famous for long stretches of beaches dotted with corrugated metal and bamboo shacks selling fresh seafood. Rincon Nayarita brings memories of quaint weather-beaten places in Sayulita except for the lack of sand between your toes.
The servers have that mischievous innocence that we all mourn the loss of, no matter how old we get. But they have enthusiasm and they’re obviously proud of the restaurant that employs them. As soon as we arrive one brings the menu; the other is quickly there with pad and pen in hand.
Don Day’s plan for a simple shrimp cocktail is thwarted by the fact that the restaurant has more enticing starters like crab, oysters and clams. But shrimp was the plan so all we do is mix in a little octopus, choosing the cocktel de pulpo y camaron. It comes in three sizes. CH, M and G. They’re priced at 55, 65 and 75 pesos. This is the Starbucks theory of pricing. How can you order a small when for very little more you can get something that’s twice the size. Don Day ordered the grande (isn’t that what Starbucks calls it?) with the plan that Don Day`s Wife would share in its delight.
Now Don Day promises not to tease you too much longer because, unless you’re far more familiar with Spanish than Don Day, you have absolutely no idea what the hell avestruz is. But Don Day did know before he got to the restaurant. For, though he may not be among the best of food writers, he does believe he is amongst the better of food researchers. And he did his homework before he left the house.
Your diligent researcher had discovered that an avestruz has three pairs of eyelids over the largest eyes of any land animal, plus two toes and one toenail.
I also discovered that those photos of avestruces (yes I had to do more research to spell the plural) with their head in the sand (yes, now you’re finally figuring out what Don Day has been talking about) are probably doing it because they are rotating the eggs that they’re incubating. I also learned that an avestruz can stick its head up its own ass. Which drives me crazy because I’m dying to know why they’d want to.
Yes, Rincon Narayit specializes in ostrich. And if you’ve ever driven on the road to Queretaro and wondered where the meat from those emu and ostrich farms goes you now know at least one place.
All of his life Don Day has had a passion for chicks with long legs but I never thought it would come to this. But I just can`t help myself from trying everything at least once. Rincon Nayarit serves its ostrich as either tacos de avestruz for 13 pesos each or as fajitas de avestruz for 100 pesos. We chose the fajitas.
OK, first the shrimp and octopus cocktail. It was definitely grande. Very grande. There were about 15 medium size shrimps and at least two sliced octopus tentacles. Don Day liked the consistency of both. Don Day`s Wife though the octopus was a little too “chewy”. They weren’t so much decorated with the sauce as they were swimming in it. But the sauce was more chili than cocktail and didn’t overpower the seafood. The cocktail came with corn chips, limes and virtually every local hot sauce known to Don Day.
And the ostrich?
Don Day expected the ostrich to taste like poultry. Maybe not chicken, perhaps more hearty, more oomphy, like duck or goose or maybe like turkey. Don Day was wrong. It was the color of red meat; the texture was just like skirt steak; and, at first, I thought it also tasted like beef. A couple of bites later I closed my eyes and thought again. The ostrich tasted like something Don Day rarely eats these days…something almost everyone seems to rarely eat these days…it tasted like veal.
Now veal is not a bad thing but, a few years ago, Don Day decided that almost every cut of veal that came from a calf had more taste when it grew up and came from a cow.
The fajitas were prepared nicely with tomatoes and onions but, much to Don Day’s dismay and not so much to Don Day’s Wife’s dismay, no peppers. There was a serving of fluffy and lightly spiced rice and an OK iceberg lettuce salad on the side.
So what about the nutritional benefits of ostrich? Ostrich meat is very low in fat…maybe the lowest in fat of any meat. With three grams of fat per 100 grams of meat, it has less than half that of chicken at 7.4. Now I know that some people think that fat is a bad thing but Don Day likes fat, especially when it’s marbling meat and making it more tender and tasty.
So will Don Day eat ostrich again? Well I thought I might until I went online and checked the price. If ostrich was cheaper than beef maybe there would be a reason to eat it. And what about ostrich being a little bit better for you than beef? Well Don Day got over that way back when he surprised everyone, including himself, and lived past the age of fifty.
And will Don Day go back to Rincon Nayarita? Well Don Day’s not sure about himself but he thinks there’s a reason you should. It’s that bucket list thing that old guys like me think are so damn important. Because I think everyone who hasn’t tried ostrich should. At least once.
There’s another reason Don Day might go back. Rincon Nayarita advertises music on weekends. Now I didn’t confirm that the sign was current and I’ve been fooled before so don’t ostracize (was dying to use that word) me if there’s not. But if there isn’t live music, there’s one of the best sounding jukeboxes I’ve heard in San Miguel.
Rincon Nayarita is located on Boulevard de la Conspiracion in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open every day except Wednesday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.
“Darling, I don’t know if it’s me or the wine talking, but I think we should open another bottle of wine.”
Don Day did take a year of economics in college. And, though he read a lot more Patti Smith than Adam Smith, he did understand the law of supply and demand. When the cupboard is empty, you buy more wine. When the cupboard is full, you drink more wine.
In Toronto, Don Day’s wine cupboard is almost always full to the brim. Because a two block walk from Don Day’s Toronto house is Canada’s largest wine store. And Don Day can be a very impulsive person when it is the demon grape that is tempting him.
In San Miguel de Allende, Don Day does most of his wine shopping at La Europea. And in San Miguel, Don Day’s cupboard is almost always close to but never quite empty. For there just isn’t that much low hanging fruit to be picked in La Europea.
There are exceptions to that rule, however. In a couple of categories, La Europea has a supply that can satisfy Don Day’s most demanding requirements. The geographic category is South America and, more specifically Argentina. The grape color is red and more specifically Cabernet Sauvignon. At last count there were fourteen different Argentinean Cabs in stock at La Europea that Don Day would welcome to his cupboard.
Argentina is one of those places that, if there was a Billboard chart of up-and-coming wine regions, it would have a bullet beside it. It’s definitely one of the fastest growing wine producing countries and total production now ranks fifth in the world. Argentina’s always been big on wine but Don Day hasn’t always been big on Argentinean wines. For many years, the big grape in Argentina was Criolla, a grape you may never have heard of and, even if you haven’t heard of or tasted it, it still should be removed from any bucket list. It’s a grape used to make a wine that Argentinians call vino de mesa. It’s a wine that Don Day calls plink plonk (it’s a similar color to rose and a reminder to me of those cloying Portuguese roses from the Sixties that, try as I may to forget them, still bring back joyful memories). In most recent numbers, Criolla still represented 44% of the wine produced in Argentina but other, more desirable grapes are catching up. Malbec, the grape you (and until recently Don Day) might have guessed would be number one does sit at number two and the number of hectares planted has grown from 10,500 to 21,200. Bonarda is third at 17,200, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon at 16,200. But the growth in Cabernet has been phenomenal. Up 600% from just 2,300 hectares 15 years ago.
Cabernet Sauvignon is, by far, the world’s most esteemed red grape and it’s not all that difficult to grow. It’s adaptable to many climates and many soils. It’s not difficult, either, to make a decent wine from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. But it is very difficult to make a great wine out of them.
The style of wine produced from the grape has many regional differences based on the amount of limestone in the soil, the average daily and nightly temperatures, the amount of humidity, frequency of rain, and how early (or late) in the season the grapes are picked.
Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most tannic of all wines and to make a good wine from the grape, those tannins must be softened. Throughout the world, wherever Cabernet Sauvignon is produced that reduction of the tannins is almost always done by aging it in oak barrels.
In Cabernet Sauvignon’s birthplace, the southwest of France, the tannins are also softened by blending the grape with other varieties, most often Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The result is a style that is much more in favor with oenophiles than social wine drinkers with flavors such as green pepper, mint and cedar coming through as well as the primary taste of black currants.
In other parts of the world, often where days are much warmer and where the grapes are left on the wine for a couple of weeks longer, the taste is much more fruity and full with the taste of plums and cherries coming through and the word jammy often used to describe the flavor. In still other parts of the world, the taste of olives, eucalyptus or menthol often add to the intricacies.
Almost all of Argentina’s Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in the state of Mendoza (the deep red on the map), in the dramatically scenic valleys and foothills of the Andes that separate the country from Chile. How far north or south the vineyards are and at what elevation they’re situated seem to have the biggest impact on the nuances of the wines. Almost every style is represented in the wines with some having the greeniness of Bordeaux, others having the jamminess of Australia and others having the peppery fruitiness of California.
Don Day has never found anything on the labels that is a good indicator of what style of Cabernet Sauvignon you’re going to get so Don Day has had to do a lot of sampling. Last night, Don Day’s friend Ricardo’s arm was given the mighty corkscrew twist to persuade him to help me as we opened, poured, swirled, sipped and guzzled our way through more than a few bottles of Argentinian Cabs. Here’s the best that we found (the prices are La Europea‘s) and keep in mind when Don Day is scoring wines, value is always the prime criteria. The order is from worst to first.
6. Ultra Kaiken $358 pesos
This is one of the priciest Argentinean Cabs on La Europea‘s list and just isn’t worth it. There are hints of tobacco, raisins and coffee complimenting the fruit but you’d have to be very sophisticated oenophile to appreciate these nuances and consider the wine worth the money. Don Day has a hard time getting his hands in his pockets when he has to pull out more than $200 pesos for a bottle of wine and this one just has his hands scratching his head.
5. Pascual Toso Reserva $334 pesos (on special at $223 pesos at time of writing)
Yes, there’s a little more complexity than the standard issue Pascual Toso (read on for that) but, again, not enough to warrant more than $100 pesos extra from Don Day’s shallow pockets. In fact, Don Day did a little side by side a while back and actually preferred the everyday Pascual Toso to the reserva.
4. Kaiken Reserva $172 pesos
Now you’re talking. At less than half the price of Kaiken Ultra, this low end offering from the same winery delivers a big basket of fruit with blackberries joining red currants in the flavor. Not a lot of sophistication in the taste but for those who like a full wallop of jam, this is a good choice.
3. Pascual Toso $214 pesos (on special for $140 pesos at time of writing)
This is Don Day’s go to, everyday Argentinean Cab. I’ve been drinking it for years and will probably drink a lot more cases before I wear out my corkscrew. There’s raspberry as well as blackcurrants in the fruit along with hints of vanilla and chocolate. For those who like a California Cabernet Sauvignon, this is very similar and very available in San Miguel de Allende.
For some reason, there are a lot of the same wines that go on sale at La Europea over and over again. When Pascual Toso Cabernet Sauvignon is down at $140 pesos, it’s a buy by the case for Don Day.
2. Catena $298 pesos
This was number one with Don Day at our little Argentinean Cabernet tasting. But not with anyone else. It’s over Don Day’s $200 pesos low ceiling, so you must know I really liked it. Usually I don’t read all the gobbledygook you find on winery’s websites but I thought the following quote about the different vineyards at different altitudes helped explain how Catena comes closest to a Bordeaux and why there are so many different styles in Argentina:
“At different altitudes, the family’s Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards express a unique profile of aromas and flavors: the black currant and cassis fruit flavors and ripe, sweet tannins of the La Pirámide vineyard (3117 ft elevation); the spicy aromatics and pepper notes of the Domingo vineyard (3675 ft elevation); the finely grained tannins of the Altamira in La Consulta vineyard (3593 ft elevation); the minerality and notes of eucalyptus of the Adrianna vineyard (4757 ft). The blend of these components creates a wine of unique character that has balance, concentration and a strong varietal identity.”
Don Day thinks the addition of 3% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot also had a lot to do with bringing out the hints of coffee and chocolate and that greeniness that comes with certain styles of Cabernet Sauvignon. Catena is one of the few Argentinean producers that blends small quantities of other grapes into their Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
Catena would definitely be Don Day’s splurge choice.
1. Trapiche Reserva $158 pesos
I’ve saved the best to last. At least the best for Don Day’s Wife and our friend Ricardo. If Catena was a woman in a little black dress, Trapiche would be a woman in tight jeans and a t-shirt. Trapiche is all about full forward fruit. There’s not a lot of sophistication but there are plums and cherries and blackcurrants bursting out of the bottle. It’s the perfect wine for the social wine drinker. And won the “best value award” from all of us.
And remember, with Thanksgiving approaching, an Argentinean Cabernet Sauvignon goes not only with turkey and ham but also the most difficult of relatives.
Forgive me father for I have sinned. Since my last confession I have committed gluttony on at least seven occasions. You see, in San Miguel de Allende, there are so many good restaurants with so many great desserts to lead me astray from the paths of righteousness.
It always happens the same way. We finish our entrees and Don Day’s Wife says to me, “Shall we get the cheque?” and I always reply, “Let’s just look at the dessert menu. Strictly for research. For the blog.” Remember, father, you told me that, unlike that other sin, it was OK to look.
The next thing I know I have fallen hard from grace again. Don Day’s Wife is rolling her eyes, tilting her head and sighing and the waiter is placing an enormous plate in front of me.
You say you need the exact details of each of the sins and the exact location of where they were committed? Why yes, father, I’ll gladly share them with you.
1. The frozen lime tart at Lavanda
“Lavender blue, dilly, dilly. Lavender green.” Don Day always thought the “lavender green” part of the lyrics were dumber than tripping over a cordless phone until I tasted Lavanda‘s lime tart. There are almost as many lime postres as flans in San Miguel de Allende. This is the sublime lime tart. And even better when it’s frozen.
Don Day suffers from OCD, an incurable disease that is only heightened when he is in San Miguel de Allende. OCD is Obsessive Chocolate Disorder and it is most infectious when Don Day is on Calzada de Aurora and passes Hansen’s. It is there that the very thought of the restaurant’s chocolate cake, a dessert that more appropriately should be called a divinely decadent chocolate bar can bring on cold sweats.
3. The pumpkin creme brulee at Patio 3.
Now everyone who’s read “Cinderella” knows how to transform a pumpkin into a stagecoach but to transform it into a great creme brule that’s only something chef Alejandra Ventura and her team at Patio 3 can do. And ooooohhhhhh that spun sugar!
4. The burnt caramel ice cream sundae with marshmallow sauce and salted peanuts at The Restaurant.
Yes, you may have to suffer through some second rate service but Don Day thinks it’s still worth a visit to The Restaurant for such imaginative and well-executed food, including the very best ice cream dish in town.
5. The carrot cake at Victoria’s.
La Palapa used to wear the crown as king of the carrot cake in San Miguel. It has now been passed to Victoria’s. This moist, creamy and not too sweet masterpiece would win the approval of that conejo connaisseur, Senor Bugs Bunny. And Porky Pig? He’d be disappointed with only one piece and would simply say, “Is that all folks?”
6. The lemon cheesecake at Mi Vida.
Feeling anxious? Don Day has something better than prozac. It’s no coincidence that stressed spelled backwards is desserts. And sometimes you need an extra large dosage. Don Day recommends the lemon cheesecake at Mi Vida with so many pleasures on a single plate.
7. The peanut butter pie at Hecho en Mexico.
Found a peanut. Found a peanut. Found a peanut one night. One night I found perhaps the best treatment of a peanut ever. Poy de cacahuates topped with chocolate syrup at Hecho en Mexico.
And one more recommendation. If you’ve reached an overripe old age like Don Day, eat dessert first. For life is so uncertain.
If Mexican cows had jobs they’d be fashion models. Because if you’ve ever driven past a Mexican cattle farm you know that Mexican cows are often not much more than skin and bone.
Because Mexican cows are skinny cows they have little or no marbling (it’s those ribbons of fat that are the main influence on whether meat is tasty and tender). In addition, Mexican beef is rarely aged (the other big influence on whether it’s tasty and tender) So a lot of the meat you buy at a Mexican butcher shop can be almost as tough as the leather that some of the rest of the beast becomes.
Mexican beef is tough but definitely not tasteless. Mexican cattle are often still free pastured and seldom fed with supplemental corn. A diet of all grass and no grain gives the beef a taste that’s sometimes stronger (Don Day would use the word beefier if Don Day’s Wife wasn’t his editor and will probably remove it) and it’s often more interesting than U.S. or Canadian beef that’s finished on corn or barley or some other grain. So, for cheap cuts that are going to be slow braised in liquid, Don Day would always say save the money and don’t buy imported. Support your local butcher and definitely cook with Mexican beef.
Steaks that are going to be grilled, broiled or fried in fat, though, are a different kettle of fish…sorry I guess that should be kettle of meat. In Don Day’s opinion (and I’m always very opinionated when red meat is the topic of conversation) there are only six types of steaks cut from Mexican cows that you should ever consider purchasing: Blade, skirt, flank, hangar, tri-tip and filet mignon.
Forget about buying T-bones, porterhouses, strip loins or rib eyes in Mexican butcher stores. In San Miguel de Allende, shop somewhere like Mega where you can buy excellent imported beef (but only in that tiny area in the northwest corner of the meat department) or, if you don’t mind frozen, at Carnevino where, even though the meat originates in Mexico, the cattle are finished on corn in a feedlot, the same way it is in Canada and the U.S.
This post though is not about these more expensive (and mostly more tender) cuts of steak. This post is about six other very flavorful cuts, five of which are among the cheapest cuts of beef you’ll find anywhere.
First, let’s get one recommended steak, the one that’s not inexpensive, the one that’s very different from the rest, out of the way.
Filet mignon (tenderloin).
This one is very easy to find and easy to ask for in a San Miguel butcher shop if you don’t find it. It almost always goes by the name filete, or occasionally, bistec de filete. It’s different because it’s the only Mexican steak cut that can still be sufficiently tender without any marbling or without tenderizing. I find the Mexican filet just as good as the U.S. but it’s not necessarily any cheaper (especially if you don’t mind the drive to Celaya or Queretaro to visit that somewhat loved, sometimes hated, but always respected Costco).
The other five recommended cuts of Mexican beef all are better with tenderizing, either by pounding or with a marinade. Don’t consider any of my recommended Spanish terms for the cuts conclusive because, as one friend remarked, “he’s totally effluent en Espagnol”, and different references say very different things about the names. Plus there doesn’t seem to be any consensus among the butcher shops I’ve frequented in San Miguel.
Don Day had never heard of tri tip until he finally got California off his bucket list and actually moved there for a few years. When he left, he seldom saw it again outside of that state. Though many people consider this a roast rather than a steak, it can be just as good as a blade, flank, skirt or hangar steak, particularly if it’s marinated. And, because it’s usually cut thicker, it may be the best cut of all for treatment with a dry rub. I find it best to slice it before it’s served so guests aren’t awkwardly trying to cut it with the grain instead of against it and end up looking like grinning cows as they try to get their teeth through it.
Tri tip is one of the most difficult cuts to explain to a Mexican butcher and I’m guessing most butchers end up putting tri tip in the grinder. The most common Spanish term I’ve heard for tri tip is bistec de empuje but I’ve also heard punta en triangulo. Both terms, however, have also brought the head twisted to one side with one raised eyebrow look from Mexican butchers. The best plan may be to ask for la parte inferior del solomillo but it’s still going to be iffy whether you exactly get a tri tip. I also suggest using the word triangular (which is the same in English and Spanish) or even tri tip when you’re shopping; the butcher may have been through a similar exercise long before your attempt and may already know how to put a smile on a foreigner’s face.
Don Day’s favorite of all cheap cuts comes from the belly, just in front of the rear legs. It was orginally popularized in Paris bistros under the name bavette. Today, under its Mexican name arrachera, it also has an international following.
Now I must tell you that a lot of people (including some Mexican chefs and Mexican butchers) think that skirt steak is used for arrachera but Don Day thinks the best arrachera is made from flank. You’ll find arrachera on menus in the southern U.S., in Venezuela and in Argentina. The word arrachera often isn’t used until the cut has been marinated. Before it’s tenderized, the butcher might know it as falda which can be extremely confusing as falda means skirt in Spanish and (remember this is Don Day’s opinion) arrachera is a flank steak not a skirt steak. Flank can also go by the name entraña except entraña won’t be as closely trimmed, leaving a layer of fat that can actually help in the tenderness when it’s cooked. And there’s one more word Don Day has seen for flank steak in Mexico (but never in San Miguel) and that is ranchera.
The French seldom marinate their flank steak and flash cook it medium rare. I’d recommend that Mexican flank always be marinated.
Skirt and Hangar.
These two cuts are both very difficult to find (or order) in Mexican carnicerias. After ten plus years of wintering (love using seasons as verbs) in San Miguel de Allende, I still find myself standing in front of butchers pointing to my oversized belly and blabbering in Spanglish, as I try to get the cut I want. The skirt and hangar are the two parts of a cow’s diaphragm that you’ll find in an area known as the plate. The skirt is at the top and the hangar hangs below it (hence the name).
Don Day even researched the internet again today going to every translation site I could find looking for the right terms for skirt and hanger. All I could find were falda and arrachera. The best Spanish word I can give you to use at the butchers is diafragma but you’re still going to need a lot of luck. One of the reasons they are difficult to find in San Miguel de Allende is that most skirt and hangar gets cut up in strips for fajitas before it ever leaves the butcher shop.
Blade steak (chuck steak). I hummed and I hawed about putting this cut in but ended up not being able to stop myself. It’s a cut that even the most sophisticated butchers in Canada and the U.S. may not be familiar with. If you’re like Don Day was until very recently and had only heard the word blade used with the word roast and had only considered it as one of the best cuts to make a pot roast, think again. The Healthy Butcher in Toronto rates this cut as the absolute number one value of all steaks when it comes to taste versus price. They suggest the cut can be grilled without any tenderizing but Don Day thinks it needs a little help from a marinade (or a lot of help from a braising liquid) in order to sing “Love Me Tender”.
The problem with walking into a San Miguel butcher shop is, no matter what Spanish words you use to order it, it’s very doubtful that the butcher will have even heard of it. Blade steaks are located in the shoulder, just above the front legs, an area often known as the chuck. It is cut from the bottom part of the chuck (the slightly tougher flatiron steak comes from the top). Bistec corazon de diezmillo is the name one San Miguel butcher uses for the cut and punta paleta is another name I’ve heard used for the cut but you’ll be lucky if either one works and it might be better instead to describe where a blade steak is located to a butcher. And maybe also cross your fingers. On both hands.
Try a little tenderizer
Don Day has to emphasize the importance of tenderizing blades, tri tips, flanks, skirts and hangars and the best way to do it is with a marinade. The problem with marinades though is they can overpower the taste of the meat if the wrong ingredients are used or if the steak is left too long in the marinade. The arracheras you purchase in the supermarket, vacuum packed in a marinade can be very good but they can also taste like teriyaki sauce, papaya or some other dominating ingredient rather than beef. My recommendation is to prepare the marinade yourself.
The single best marinade ingredient is pineapple. Pineapples are a member of the bromeliad family and bromeliads have an enzyme called bromelain. Don Day only took first year chemistry (when luscious Linda switched to botany so did Don Day) so I can’t explain it with atomic numbers but nothing breaks down collagen like bromelain and, best of all, it doesn’t overpower the beef taste. I pick up my pineapples at San Miguel’s Tuesday Market (at the same time as I’m looking for $3 Hawaiian shirts with pineapples on them). Never ever, repeat never ever, use canned pineapple or canned pineapple juice; I have no idea why but it just doesn’t work.
You can add a lot of herbs and spices in your marinade or just let the beef do the talking. The following are the basic ingredients I would use for four eight ounce blade, tri-tip, hangar, flank or skirt steaks.
1 cup of fresh pineapple juice
1/2 cup of honey
2 tablespoons of soy sauce
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon of salt
Place the steaks and the ingredients in a plastic bag with a tight seal. Put on some old time rock and roll (rhythm and blues also works) and shake the bag around. Then refrigerate them for four hours. If it’s going to be longer before you eat the steaks, take them out of the marinade and rinse them off before putting them back in the fridge.
What butcher is going to give me the best chance of getting the steak I want?
Calle Colegio is butcher’s row in San Miguel with at least two carnicerias that will help you choose the best cuts of Mexican beef for steaks. Don Day thinks the very best San Miguel butcher though is La Nueva Aurora in Fraccionamiento La Luz. But it’s not exactly convenient for most people unless, like Don Day, you’re a regular at the Tuesday Market. From there, it’s only a couple of blocks away.
Alberto, Aurora’s master of meat, has lots of simple charts on the wall as well as a binder with virtually every cut of meat illustrated and described which, if you’re patient, he’ll go through with you, page by page. But that doesn’t suggest he’ll have the exact cut you want in the display cases. He might, however be able to walk into the fridge, bring out a side and then cut it while you’re there. If not, he’ll almost always be able to get it for you within a few days.
Carniceria La Neuva Aurora is located at Durazno #24 in Fraccionamiento La Luz, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
A few months ago, Don Day wrote a blog about Chef Boris Olvera creating a wonderful version one of his favorite fish dishes, pescado a la veracruzana. And though Don Day doesn’t get many emails, that day he got two. And both were raves about two other fish dishes that are available in two very well respected San Miguel restaurants.
So did Don Day rush out and sample them? No, Don Day didn’t. What Don Day did was delve a little deeper into the dishes.
The first was based on salmon but, unfortunately, it was salmon that had been farmed and frozen and Don Day prefers his salmon to have similar attributes to the women he prefers to dine with. Don Day likes his salmon wild and fresh.
The second dish was based on tilapia. In this case the restaurant didn’t know (they should have) whether the tilapia was farmed or wild or whether it was fresh or previously frozen. But statistically, there was about a 99% chance the fish was farmed. And Don Day doesn’t eat farmed tilapia. Not because farmed tilapia eat corn and soy rather than aquatic plants. Not because farmed tilapia are fed methyltesterone so that they grow fat bellies instead of sex organs. Not because farmed tilapia contain a lot of bad Omega 6 fatty acids and very little good Omega 3 fats. Not because Harvard University says farmed tilapia can have ten times more toxins than farmed fish. And not because a Wake Forest study said that farmed tilapia is worse for you than bacon.
Don Day doesn’t eat farmed tilapia because farmed tilapia is bland, almost tasteless and Don Day likes his fish to be rich in flavor and taste at least a little fishy.
Now if you’re a regular reader of Don Day in SMA, you’ll know that I don’t write about what I don’t like in San Miguel, I write only about what I like. And mostly only what I like a lot. So yes, today’s blog has a lining the same color as the skin of a fish. For today I’m going to tell you what I think is the very best fish dish in all of San Miguel de Allende.
Don Day is very fond of San Miguel restaurant Mi Vida but I don’t go there very often. Because often I look inside and it’s as empty as Don Day’s pockets after a Wednesday night at Cactus Jack’s San Miguel poker game. And, in Don Day’s opinion, ambience and atmosphere can only be fully achieved in restaurants that are, at the very least, half full.
It was no different the last time Don Day’s Wife and I went to Mi Vida. There were only two other diners in a restaurant that could probably seat sixty. But you can only go so long without Mi Vida‘s pescado entero del dia a la sal.
Mi Vida is a beautiful and elegant room. It’s a little cluttered but still very classy. The tableware says quality. The napkins and tablecloths are the kind you hate to dirty. There’s an open airiness yet still a coziness. There is art that Don Day would be happy to have on the walls of his home (including a menu cover that Don Day thinks is the second best in San Miguel…Andanza is my favorite). And if you arrive on the right evening, you’ll catch some of the best live music in town.
But not everything is ideal at Mi Vida. The restaurant always seems to be lacking (and needing) a maitre d’. Once you get past the front door though, service is very precise and very efficient.
Mi Vida arrived in San Miguel de Allende about five years ago, taking over a space previously occupied by El Gallo, an ambitious attempt by Nirvana to open a second location. It’s run by two chefs Davide Garibaldi and Greta Ortega, he from Italy and she from Mexico. The catchline for Mi Vida is, appropriately, Italian Restaurant with a Mexican Accent.
Previously Davide and Greta cooked together in Playa del Carmen and, I suspect, used to occupy rooms other than the kitchen together. Today the partnership is strictly business and one of the reasons that it may work so well is because I seldom see both of them in the restaurant at the same time.
It was Greta who was there the last time we were there. She’s a fortyish woman with a model’s walk and mysterious cat’s eyes who, with her school ma’am hair always pulled severely back, reminds Don Day of Dorothy Malone in her brunette days in The Big Sleep. I suspect that, like the Acme Book Shop proprietor that Malone played in the movie, she looks much more stern and serious than she really is.
If you don’t know what that fish dish on Mi Vida‘s menu is let me tell you that I copied the exact words pescado entero del dia a la sal from their menu and, in the simple words of Don Day, it’s simply a whole fish baked in a salt crust.
Though it sounds very scary (“Oh what if it tastes so salty nobody can even eat it!”), fish in a salt crust apparently isn’t that difficult to make. You gut a whole fish and remove the gills and fins but not the head and tail (Don Day would of course leave the nasty prep parts to the fishmonger). Then you stuff it with some light and simple spicing. You mix coarse salt with egg whites and wrap it up and roast it. The only controversy I’ve ever heard about preparing the dish is whether or not you scale the fish (some say it lets too much salt into the flesh if you do).
What cooking in a crust of salt does is help retain the moisture, keep the flesh flaky and, for some mysterious reason, make the fish exceptionally flavorful. There are a number of dwellers of the deep that work well using this treatment. Traditionally Mi Vida has used robalo. During our last visit, huachinango or, in English, red snapper was the choice. The importance of any fish dish is freshness and, though it was a couple of years ago when I asked him, Davide Garibaldi told me he was sourcing his fish from San Miguel seafood shop La Isla. That’s the same supplier of choice for all of the fish Don Day’s Wife cooks at our home.
As you know, all good things are worth waiting for. And the same goes for fish in a salt crust at Mi Vida. For it is only done to order. And prep and cooking take about an hour. If you were much more organized than Don Day you might call ahead. But that means you wouldn’t have an hour to fill savoring other delights from Mi Vida‘s menu.
The dish also needs to be ordered for at least two people so you’ll need an agreeable lunch or dinner date (Don Day is often available). At a price of 390 pesos a kilo and a kilo sometimes being enough for three people, it’s not only San Miguel’s best tasting fish dish, it’s also one of San Miguel’s best priced dishes of any description.
Most recently, we started by ordering wine. The wine menu is a binder with one of those chunky covers that are more familiar in steak houses frequented by people with slim suits and fat expense accounts. It has more pages than some restaurants have wines. There are some Italian wines from Piedmont and Tuscany that, with their 3000+ peso prices would require Don Day to have a suit-wearing job to afford them but there are also a lot of bottles at the Don Day less than 500 pesos level. Almost always, we would order a white to go with fish but Mi Vida‘s fish in a salt crust is flavorful enough to handle a red. The fact that Incognito, a favorite from the Valle de Guadelupe that is very hard to find, was on the menu sealed the deal. The wine combines cabernet sauvignon, grenache and tempranillo, has wonderful hints of blueberries and blackcurrants, and is priced at a very reasonable 330 pesos at Mi Vida.
In addition to the wine we ordered water. The look of the bottle of Ciel that comes to the table unfortunately robs the table setting of a lot of its elegance.
Accompanying the wine to the table was Mi Vida‘s tin box of breads that are baked on the patio by Mi Vida‘s third partner Pedro Escamilla in a wood fired oven.
At the front of the restaurant, Sale Pepe sells some of the best artisan baked goods in San Miguel. Included in the tin were three different and delicious breads as well as grissini sticks. With them came good quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping.
For our the wait is killing me course, the one where we hum Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” we went with the appetizer that seems to have been added to more restaurant menus than any other in the last year. We went with the pulpo a la parilla, grilled octopus done in salsa verde, served with seaweed, giant capers, roast potatoes and almonds and walnuts still hot from toasting.
“That’s very tender octopus”, said Don Day’s Wife.
“That’s a wonderful accompaniment to the tentacles”, said Don Day.
Maybe the server saw Don Day’s Wife checking her iPhone for the time; maybe he had a way to recognize a man who is salivating; for when the server returned from the kitchen he brought a little surprise course. Two slices of bruschetta arrived on an oval wooden platter.
“Um good”, said Don Day’s Wife, after her first bite.
“Um very good”, said Don Day, after his second.”
“That could be the best bruschetta, we’ve ever had in this town”, said Don Day.
“That is the best bruschetta, we’ve ever had in this town”, said Don Day’s Wife.
The bruschetta isn’t on the menu but I presume, Mi Vida will make it for you. Or, you could just try checking your iPhone when the hour’s wait for the fish is almost up.
Don Day likes a little showbiz in restaurants. Don Day misses caesar salad being tossed at his table. Don Day misses cherries jubilee, crepes suzette, bananas foster and any other dessert that became endangered by the sensitivity of smoke detectors and sprinkler systems. So drumroll, please. And maybe a few French horns. Mi Vida‘s pescado entero del dia a la sal revives the showbiz tradition.
A metal tray is carried in on the extended arm of your server and placed on a side table. On the tray is a lining of parchment paper and on that paper, just turning a rich golden color, is the package you’ve been waiting for. Only a few exposed tail fins indicate what’s inside.
The server then proceeds to open the package, removing the top crust of salt and, with knife and fork, releasing the most delightful of aromas, expertly removing the flakes of white flesh from the bones and placing it on each plate. Salad greens and veggies are added and, with one final squeeze of lime, San Miguel de Allende’s very best fish dish is ready to touch your tastebuds.
What makes it taste so good? An art critic might call it minimalism. There’s no sauce for it to hide behind. All you taste is very fresh fish. And that is one of the world’s great tastes.
Now this blog could end here. But it won’t. Because there’s a grand finale to the best fish dish in town. I’ll tease you with some of the words that came out of Don Day’s Wife while we were eating it.
“What a beautiful presentation!”
“We could be in the finest French restaurant.”
“That’s one of the prettiest desserts I’ve seen in a long time.”
“You know I’m not really a dessert eater but this is impossible to resist.”
Don Day is not even sure exactly what the dessert is called. I think Mi Vida‘s servers simply refer to it as lemon cheesecake. But what an understatement. It goes miles beyond that. It combines lemon, chocolate and strawberry in wonderful proportions. There’s cake, meringue and preserves. The tastes all work separately and they all work together. And the presentation on the plate is a work of art that can compete with the art on the walls.
Our dessert was preceded by a complimentary lemon sorbet and followed by complimentary cookies. It was a fairytale ending to one of San Miguel’s ultimate dining experiences.
There are three restaurants in San Miguel de Allende that are totally dedicated to seafood. But if you suffer from pescadophilia. If you want the best fish dish in town. You need instead to go to an Italian restaurant with a Mexican accent. You need only two words to put the best fish dish in your life. Mi Vida.
Mi Vida is located at Hernandez Macias #97 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They’re open on Monday and from Wednesday to Saturday, Noon to 10:00 pm; Sunday 1:30 to 10:00 pm. They are closed Tuesdays. The bakery is open Wednesday to Sunday from 8:30 am to 10:00 pm, every day except Tuesdays.
Josefina Quintera and Don Day don’t have a lot in common. But there are two things. Both of them came to San Miguel de Allende about ten years ago. And they both fell in love.
The object of their affection was not someone they wanted to hold or caress. But their love affair was with someone they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with. They fell head over heels over San Miguel de Allende.
Josefina Quintera was living in Mexico City in those days. Working in sales for the Fairmont Hotel. But she knew, sooner or later, she wanted out of the big taco and to find new footing in a provincial town.
It was 2003. Josefina was a tourist in San Miguel, having breakfast with her mother, when her husband told her that he’d made an appointment to see a property that housed a Chinese restaurant. She grudgingly accompanied him. Two months later, along with their two young children, they were living here.
Chatting with Josefina, at her rooftop restaurant, she told me, “I realized that in my mind and in my heart, I’d always wanted to live in San Miguel. It’s everything that’s good about Mexico. The people. The history. The handicrafts. The architecture. The traditions.”
“We changed everything about the restaurant. So much so that people who’d been there before no longer realized they were in the same place.”
“When we were tourists in San Miguel, we’d never found a restaurant that we thought was perfect for people like us. A place that served the kind of Mexican cuisine we enjoyed. A place that Mexicans who lived in San Miguel would come to.”
Josefina referred to her initial concept as a Cenaduria. Don Day has seen the word before (La Alborada, the restaurant that serves some of San Miguel de Allende’s best pozole, calls itself a Cenaduria) but I’ve never quite understood what the word meant. I’m guessing it suggests a casual eating place.
“We started with five dishes. I guess they were our favorite dishes. At least the favorites that we knew how to make. There was pozole, cochinita pibil, tinga tostadas, green enchiladas and pambazos,” Josefina told me. “We wanted the locals to come and maybe the odd Mexican tourist. They didn’t. But someone else did. Gringos came. Both residents and tourists. They loved the main courses but they wanted salads. They wanted wine. They asked for bread. They expected cloth napkins. We realized we had to rethink the concept.”
“We closed for two weeks. When we reopened as a restaurant, we were pretty much what we are today. We were La Posadita.”
Cut now to ten years later. Don Day is at the SMARTs, an awards program held earlier in 2014 to recognize the best restaurants in San Miguel de Allende, La Posadita is voted the number one restaurant in town.
You can be a regular at La Posadita and have never met Josefina Quintera, perhaps never even seen her. She stays…perhaps hides…in the background most of the time. That’s a shame because she’s a very warm, charming and…yes, of course Don Day noticed…attractive woman. On the day Don Day interviewed Josefina she was dressed in the most traditional of Mexican tops over the most trendy of distressed jeans with calf high cuffs. Josefina’s style is the restaurant’s style. Old world tradition with a modern twist.
As Don Day can sometimes be a little forgetful, he had gone to La Posadita to interview Josefina Quintera with a list of questions in his notebook. It was a list of why people who’d filled in ballots for the SMARTs had thought La Posadita was the town’s best restaurant. I wanted Josefina’s opinions.
La Posadita‘s location is one of the very best in town. Just steps from the jardin and the parroquia, dead center…no make that live center…of everything that happens in San Miguel. But it’s still a restaurant that’s very hard to walk into.
If you know the three most important rules of real estate then you know the three most important rules of restaurants: Location. Location. Location. Directly after the restaurant rule about the importance of location could be the stairs rule. If your customers have to climb up (or down) stairs to get to your restaurant, they probably won’t.
Right after I interviewed Josefina, I actually watched it happen. I was on the other side of Cuna de Allende taking a picture of the front of the restaurant when a woman arrived. She looked at the signs. She looked at the stairs. Then she looked to the right at the other door. She peeked inside the door. Then she looked at the stairs again. Then she climbed the stairs to the first landing. Then she came down the stairs and looked at the signs again. Then she took a note from her purse. Then she climbed the stairs once more and, when I never saw her again, I presume she finally took the pleasures of La Posadita.
It’s not just the uncertainty of whether or not you’re going to the right place. The stairs are well worn, rickety and narrow and when you get to the top of the first flight, your first sight is what looks like a cashier’s window. It’s no wonder that people think they may be in the wrong place.
“I don’t think there’s anything we can do about the stairs. And the sign is all we’re allowed because San Miguel is a heritage site,” Josefina told me. “I know that if people like us, they’ll tell other people. And if they really want to, they’ll climb up and find us.”
The second thing on my list to discuss was the view. Tourists are suckers for views. And so is Don Day.
Going to La Posadita is like going to the theater and, as in a theater, some seats are much better than others but, as in a good theater, there are really no bad seats.
Arrive at the right time of the evening and you can watch three different acts in the theater. The first act is on the eastern stage. It’s the parroquia, the church that Don Day thinks has the most beautiful exterior in the world, bathed in natural light. Then comes act two, the sunset over the blue gray western hills which, with San Miguel weather, is almost guaranteed to be spectacular. The final act is back to the east, the parroquia washed with electric highlights.
Though there are few walls to separate them, La Posadita is actually four or five rooms. With a wall of water, lights hidden in the walls, strategically placed greenery and pieces of statuary all doing their part to separate those rooms. The front room, furthest east in the restaurant is like the orchestra, the place for the closest view of the parroquia. And the further east you can sit, the closer to the stage you’re going to be.
At the far western end of the restaurant is the royal box. A single table and two chairs that Don Day believes is the very best place to sit in any San Miguel de Allende restaurant. The time to arrive is about half an hour before sunset. You’ll gaze at the rooftops of San Miguel, marvel at the colors as you count the moments to the sun’s final descent, watch the lights go on with a backdrop of the smoky blue Sierras, and finally spot the first twinkle in the sky.
“There are a few people who phone for reservations and ask for that one table for two. I wish I could give it to everyone,” said Josefina. “It’s where I’d sit if I was a customer.”
The music that you’ll often hear in La Posadita enhances the theatre reference. The last time I was there, I recognized the voice of Pedro Vargas, San Miguel’s most celebrated vocalist singing his passionate version of “Obsesion”. There couldn’t have been anything more appropriate. And, just as importantly, it was at the right volume to be heard but still allow conversation.
That last night we were there was a Tuesday night, a night usually as empty as a bottle of Victoria in Don Day’s hand on a July afternoon. But La Posadita was SRO. The mix was interesting as well. The crowd is always younger than most places in San Miguel. I think it’s where old folks like Don Day traditionally bring their younger guests. I’m always guessing at relationships in La Posadita. Grandma and grandpa are the expats who live in San Miguel; daughter, son-in-law and the grandkids are visiting for a week. And the mix of about 70% foreign tourists and expats and 30% Mexican is unusual for restaurants this close to the jardin.
Don Day is not exactly a stickler for service. I’ll suffer some ugly attitudes for extraordinary food. But when I was counting the ballots for the SMARTs awards to determine San Miguel’s best restaurant, I realized just how important it was to other people and just how much they appreciated the attention they received at La Posadita.
I remember the first time I climbed the stairs to La Posadita many years ago and the waiter walked over to our table. He looked sophisticated. Like the Greek waiters in their tuxedos that used to serve me in the sixties and seventies. And just because Don Day never read “Dress for Success”, he likes restaurant owners who did. Josefina Quintera obviously spends some lot of money to outfit her servers and, if you ever steal a peek in the kitchen, you’ll see the workers there always dressed in whites.
The thing Don Day really likes about La Posadita‘s servers is their attitude. They don’t want to be my best friend. And they don’t have their noses in the air as if someone just farted and they don’t know who it is. They’re right where a waiter should be. Right at the midpoint between serious and sociable when it comes to relating to guests.
“I don’t look for experience when I choose employees. I look for attitude,” said Josefina. “I look for people who smile at the interview. Who look happy in their life. Everything else they can learn if they have the right attitude.”
“I prefer to hire people when they’re young, around seventeen years old. Then I like to watch them grow. Both at work and in their personal lives. Get married. Have babies.”
Don Day ran into his friend Joe Erickson that last time we were at La Posadita. He told me, “I think they’re some of the best servers in San Miguel. I think the management just gets it. They understand how important good service is.”
During the time we spent together, Josefina Quintera only began talking with her hands once.
“My people are the restaurant. I want you to photograph them, not just me. They’re what the restaurant is all about,” she said, most emphatically.
Sooner or later it gets to food. And that was the next thing Josefina and I discussed.
La Posadita‘s menu has come a long way from those five entrees that they opened their doors with. It might be the biggest menu in town. It certainly has the most pages. It includes almost every dish on the Mexican hit parade. And it definitely makes it tough for Don Day to make a decision.
I’ve never been quite sure who’s in charge of La Posadita‘s kitchen. I’ve certainly never seen anyone emerge in a chef’s toque ready to receive the accolades of the evening.
I asked Josefina, “Who’s el jefe at La Posadita?”
Her answer came very quickly and abruptly. “I am”, she said, but then it was softened with, “but everyone who works in my kitchen is, in some ways, a chef.”
“If a plate comes back into the kitchen with food left on it I'm the one who wants to know why.”
“So many people have made contributions to the recipes over the years. I've been making the enchiladas verde for my brothers since I was fourteen years old. The lime soup I learned to make in the kitchen of the Hyatt in Merida. The mole is an ancient recipe from the grandmother of my husband. The cochinita was a secret recipe of my mother's. The chiles en nogata combines the recipes of my mother and my mother-in-law. The ideas have come from relatives, friends, employees. Almost everything on the menu has a little history.
“I want to never stop learning about Mexican cuisine. We travel to the Yucatan, Guerrero, Merida with our eyes open for ways to improve our current recipes or add new ones.”
Don Day's favorites from the long list of traditional Mexican entrees are the chamorro adobado, the mixiote de carnero and the cochinita pibil. I asked Josefina what she thought was the best main course on the menu.
“I'm most proud of our chiles en nogata”, she said. “We make them with love.”
Don Day does know that Don Day’s Wife favorite appetizer in San Miguel de Allende is La Posadita‘s bacon wrapped asparagus. And Don Day’s grandson Anderson’s favorite dessert is La Posadita‘s chocolate cake.
Wine is a very important part of a restaurant experience for Don Day. Because a dinner without wine is like (insert your own cliched simile here). I’m not a particularly sophisticated wine drinker but I am a somewhat fussy wine drinker and, I admit it, a bit of a cheapie when it comes to alcoholic beverages.
When you master the first flight of stairs to La Posadita, you’ll see a very impressive, glassed-in wine cellar. You’ll know right away that this place cares about wines.
The wine list at La Posadita could have been custom crafted for Don Day. For Don Day is not a wine connoisseur. Don Day is basically just a wine drinker. There are about 80 wines on the list. More than half of them fall into Don Day’s world of wine. They’re under 500 pesos a bottle. Not only that but Don Day can find many of his favorites, particularly his Mexican favorites. Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard at 300 pesos a bottle. LA Cetto Nebbiolo at 310 pesos. Casa Madera Cabernet Sauvignon for less than 400 pesos.
And the house red at La Posadita? is Montevina. The label that won “the best inexpensive wine” award at the 2014 SMARTs.
“Our cellar is the creation of my partner Javier, wine lover and avid promoter of our Mexican wines. 70% of our labels are produced in Mexico”, said Josefina.
Javier runs El Alcazar, the hotel that occupies the ground floor beneath La Posadita. Don Day is impressed by the list because it is one of the least pretentious I’ve ever seen and doesn’t make Don Day feel like he’s a stingy old codger who isn’t willing to let the moths fly out of his wallet.
Don Day congratulated Josefina on her SMARTs awards win and began climbing the long hill home up Calle Correo. As I walked I tried to think of a very specific reason why San Miguelenses like La Posadita more than any other San Miguel restaurant. And I think I may have got it. La Posadita is upscale in ambience and cuisine but downscale in prices. It’s a place that’s both classy and casual. It’s a place where people who play cellos and people who play Fender Telecasters could meet for lunch.
Josefina Quintera has created a perfect balance between upscale and downscale. Between luxury and comfort. Between classy and cheerful. If you’re fortunate enough to eat at La Posadita and she happens to step out of the shadows, Don Day suggests you congratulate her.
La Posadita is located at Cuna de Allende #13 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They’re open from 12:00 Noon to 10:00 pm, closed Wednesdays.
It goes back almost 20 years to Puerto Vallarta. We were renting an apartment on one floor of a seven level house at the south end of town that cascaded down the cliff into Banderas Bay. Our place was spectacular and included a room that I’d never ever had before and have never had since. Our place had a ballroom.
Don Day’s wife loves to dance and, after some liquid encouragement, so does Don Day. In the ballroom was a CD player and, in a drawer, only two CDs. We played the first album, “Songs You Know By Heart” by Jimmy Buffett for three straight days until we could sing along to almost every word of “A Pirate Looks At Forty” and “Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes”.
Then, all too soon, it was the two Canadian pirates’ last night in paradise. We planned a romantic picnic on our balcony above the Pacific. Finding gringo food in a supermarket was almost impossible in those days so we ended up picking up soft-crusted bread that was sweeter than brioche, local cheeses that were really only good for melting, and packages of Fud meats with the most unappetizing names imaginable, along with a bottle of Spanish Cava and a bottle of Marques de Riscal Rioja. Jimmy Buffett just didn’t fit the mood. It was time to check out the second CD. It was titled “As Time Goes By”. The artist was Jimmy Durante. Don Day had always thought Schnozolla was a bit of an asshole when he had his own TV show but Don Day finds it easy to relate to guys with big noses who are a bit of an asshole and, if nothing else, the CD had a lot of romantic ballads.
“Try A Little Tenderness”, “The Glory Of Love”, “I’ll Be Seeing You”, “September Song”…we were soon in each other’s arms in the ballroom. An almost full moon glowed through the balcony’s French doors. The waves crashed below. Don Day, Don Day’s Wife and Jimmy Durante shared one of the most intimate Mexican dinners ever.
I’d almost forgotten that night until about five years ago when I was speeding down the Queen Elizabeth Way in my friend Ben’s Jag on the way from Toronto to Buffalo to catch a plane to St. Pete’s, Florida where we were going to try and take a steel-hulled houseboat over to the Atlantic side. Ben had Jimmy Buffett on the CD player to warm us up to the task but then, as we approached Niagara Falls, it flipped to another album. Don Day heard a familiar voice singing “Make Someone Happy” followed by “Young At Heart”. It was Jimmy Durante again.
I told Ben I couldn’t believe what he was playing. I’ll never forget Ben’s explanation: “Nothing makes them hornier than Durante.” And I thought it was Don Day’s secret. A couple of weeks ago, Ben sent me an invitation to his wedding. Jimmy must have been working overtime recently.
We switch now to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and it’s February, 2010. We were having some people to dinner that I wanted terribly to impress. I had seen a somewhat rare and showy delicacy at the Tuesday Market and decided yes, stuffed squash blossoms, that would be pure showbiz.
Don Day didn’t know much about squash blossoms. Other than christening the first woman who wore Spandex at the racquet club (and shouldn’t have) with the name. I decided to make sure I knew what the Spanish name for squash blossoms was so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself when I arrived at San Miguel’s Tuesday market. Flor de calabaza was what Google Translate said. But, as Don Day’s mind isn’t quite as sharp as it once was, I was afraid I’d forget it before I got there. I knew flor was flower; that wouldn’t be a problem but with that other word, that word for squash, I needed assistance, a little trick. And there was Jimmy Durante anxious to help again. Durante always ended his show with “And goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” So off Don Day went to Mercado Ignacio Ramirez humming “Inka Dinka Doo” knowing I would never forget the word calabaza.
It’s August, the time of year when flors de calabaza are making an appearance in fruit and veg markets again. They grow wild in San Miguel and on the walk to the Tuesday market, Don Day has to sometimes dance between them as they invade the sidewalk. There are not many flowers (the locals rise much earlier than Don Day) but you’ll see those familiar flag leaves amongst the wild grasses.
A more appropriate name for squash blossoms might be zucchini blossoms (or courgette blossoms if you’re from England or France) because that’s what they really are. Flors de calabaza should be used within a couple of days of being picked. They should be firm and only partially open. North of the border, they’re hard to find because they need gentle handling and perish very quickly.
To me, squash blossoms were always an Italian dish. I’ve had the petals deep fried in a light batter and I’ve had them stuffed, usually with cheese, and baked. In Mexico, most often they are put into a soup.
Though you don’t get a lot of flavor out of the flowers, here is how I like to stuff and prepare them. It makes for one very impressive looking appetizer and Don Day loves getting a little attention.
Hold on to the stems and gently remove the parts inside the flowers (if you’re into plant sex, those are pistils on female flowers and stamens on male flowers). Stuff them with a mixture of goat camembert (available at Luna de Queso on Salida a Celaya) dotted with finely chopped roasted poblano peppers, red pimiento peppers and almonds (other nuts will work). Dip the stuffed flowers in Mitsuki tempura batter (available at Bonanza on Mesones). Deep fry them, two or three at a time, in vegetable oil for a couple of minutes and drain. Serve them, hot or cold, with a dip of one part Valentina sauce to about three parts sour cream.
Don Day’s Wife is the soup specialist in the family but doesn’t get too excited about squash blossom soup so Don Day has to venture out for this Mexican treat. If I was in San Miguel, Don Day would be sampling it personally but, as I am in Toronto as I write this, I will direct you to where, I understand, they have one of the best sopas de flor de calabaza ever. The word I got via email is that “when the squash blossom soup is on the menu, it’s like a run on a bank.”
The soup is being served at Olivo Verde, that little place that’s a little too far away from where most people live in San Miguel that specializes in Italian cuisine. That restaurant is in the house where Chef Juan Manuel Reyes Patlan, who is much better known by the much easier to remember name of Denver, grew up. Denver’s mother was Maria Ines one of the most celebrated cooks in San Miguel de Allende during the sixties and seventies and the recipe came from her.
Most squash blossom soups in Mexico are cremas but Olivo Verde‘s is tomato based (thanks for making me very hungry with the photo Todd McIntosh) with a stronger than usual hint of garlic and a generous sprinkle of parmesan cheese.
In an email, Patricia Mahan told me, “Denver makes such good soups I have had two full bowls in one sitting.” She continued, “We love to watch him at work and how he beams when you compliment him.”
Follow the soup with one of Denver’s pastas, add on a glass or three of wine and then just saunter home singing “The Whiffenpoof Song”.
We are poor little lambs who have lost our way, Baa! Baa! Baa!
We’re little black sheep who have gone astray, Baa! Baa! Baa!
Goodnight Mrs. Calabash wherever you are.
Olivo Verde is located at Colonia Aurora #5 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They’re open from Noon to 8:00 pm, Wednesday through Saturday. Squash blossoms are in season from June through September and Wednesday is, traditionally, soup day at the restaurant.
They definitely looked familiar. From somewhere but I wasn’t sure exactly where. Now there were these two big bloodshot eyes staring at me from over the ten foot high wall that separates our property from the neighbors.
I asked Jose who had lived in San Miguel de Allende all his life if he knew about the dragons. He said no. I asked his sister Juana. She reiterated the no.
Don Day is usually a foul weather friend of Mexico. He usually only comes to San Miguel in December through April, escaping those most unfair of Canadian winters. In the winter months he had seen white eyes looking over the wall but he had never seen them red before.
Don Day loved the white eyes. So much so that he went to Google to find out what they were. It took a while. A need to refresh the glass twice during the research time. But Don Day found them. Those eyes were pitaya flowers. And they were some of the most beautiful flowers he had ever seen.
The flowers always looked best when Don Day looked his worst (but thinks he looks his best). Like Don Day they come alive at night and wilt long before morning. They are often known by the name Moonflower or Queen of the Night, two names that Don Day, to the best of his knowledge, has never been known by.
This Summer, Don Day did something he’d never done before. He spent two of his summer months in San Miguel de Allende. And the white flowers had been replaced. There looking over the wall at him were red fruits. It was time to go to Google and learn even more about these neighborly invaders.
Don Day discovered that in the summer, pitaya (or pittaya or pitahaya) flowers become dragon fruit. Dragon fruit. Now Don Day knew where he had seen them. In front of the Chinese supermarkets that line Spadina Avenue in Toronto. He had even bought one once because of his insatiable appetite to eat everything once.
It was a little strange looking, white flesh with black seeds. It was reminiscent of kiwi fruit. Sweet and nutty. The problem was, like kiwi fruit, Don Day was never quite sure what to do with it (other than provide one more variation on the recipe for pavlova).
So I didn’t have it again until this summer. And I liked it even more. Though it might be tough to come up with an appropriate after dinner dessert if you’re having company, it’s damn good just cut in half and eaten with a spoon in front of the TV when you’re catching the latest episode of Ray Donovan.
In Don Day’s opinion, there are only two superfoods, grapes and barley. But to more sophisticated people there are others. And one of them is pitaya (or pittaya or pitahaya). This Mexican native has got just about all of the buzzwords those people who eat food because it’s good for you flaunt when they talk about their superfoods. You know the words: Antioxidants. Vitamin B. High in fiber. Low in calories. And, according to the website therawfoodfamily.com, “It has almost zero cholesterol, fat and trans-fat so it is such a good food if you struggle with weight issues. As it has a lot of plant fiber which helps prevent diarrhea and digestive issues, it is helping from two angles to aid your body. It is giving you a saturated feeling, helping to feel full in a healthy way, not bulking up with too many calories, and on the same token healing and supporting your whole digestive system in a very healthy way!”
Now because Don Day is always fascinated about weird stuff that concerns food, he must share with you what he found in The Organ Pipe Cactus (another name for the pitaya) by David Yetman.
Several of the Padres who missionized Baja California recorded an unusual form of consumption of pitaya that is also shared in some O’odham stories from southern Arizona. It is called the “second harvest” of pitaya seeds. With the scarcity of fruits in their lands, the pitaya was such a prized fruit that once it was eaten, the natives would wait for their own excrement to dry, then break it apart separating the pitaya seeds. These seeds would be ground into a flour and eaten again, giving the pitaya’s “second harvest” its name. Interestingly, the O’odham name for the Milky Way translates as “the second harvest of pitaya.
If you want to check out dragon fruit in San Miguel, there’s only one place I’ve seen it. It’s at the Tuesday market. At that stand that’s about one aisle in from the south and west corner, the stall you may know as the one that always has basil. The one run by the guy in the photo. That’s where Don Day found it which means that, yes, I’d already eaten all of the dragons that breathed their fire over my wall.
Don Day used to go to beaches. Don Day used to go to big cities. Don Day used to go to castles. Don Day used to go to ski resorts. These days, Don Day has one of those been there, done that attitudes. He only goes to places where they offer something very special to eat or drink. These days, Don Day is often an oenotourist.
Oenotourism. Talk about a mouthful. Talk about a butt ugly word. Even if you drop that first “o” and spell it enotourism or use that other term vinitourism, it’s still got five syllables.
Oenotourism is basically a holiday that focuses on wine. However life’s a holiday for Don Day and all of Don Day’s holidays focus somewhat on wine so I guess I have to be a little more specific. If I include that oenotourism involves visiting vineyards, that should do it.
Oenotourism has been a big deal in Europe for decades. In the mid seventies, it also started to be a big deal in California. In Mexico it’s taken a little longer to catch on. But that’s mostly because Mexican wine has taken a little longer to catch on. I took a look today at the latest edition of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book and of the 300 plus pages there’s still only one devoted to Mexican wine. And that’s about right when you figure that Mexico only represents about .36% of the world’s output.
The Valle de Guadelupe was the first part of Mexico to get into the wine tourism business. But then it was also the first region in Mexico to get recognition for decent Mexican wine. About five years ago, organized tours, mostly originating out of Ensenada, the fishing port on the west coast that, if you drive like Don Day’s Wife, is only about two hours south of San Diego, started exploring the wineries that were springing up in the Northern Baja.
Now there’s a new wine region. At least if you believe the Wine Route signs that have been put up by the government. And it’s all within an hour or two of San Miguel de Allende.
In wine regions all over France, Italy and Spain you can sometimes hit five different wineries in just ten kilometers of driving. In Mexico, it’s a little different. Bodega Dos Buhos, Vinicola Toyan, Freixenet, Rancho Santa Gloria, La Redonda and Los Rosales are all wineries an easy day trip from San Miguel de Allende but combining more than two in a tour can make it a very long day. And as that day involves the consumption of wine, it can be a dangerous day. Don Day has been known to end up in a ditch on his most sober of days.
The good thing about oenotourism is it includes alcohol. The bad thing about oenotourism is it includes alcohol. The good thing about oenotourism is it includes a trip into the country. The bad thing about oenotourism is it includes a trip into the country. Don Day’s advice: Get a DD, hire a driver, or splurge a little on a taxi and spend the day at the winery that Don Day thinks is simply one of the best ways to spend any of your days if you live in or are visiting San Miguel de Allende.
I met Ricardo Vega in Los Cuatro Milpas, a San Miguel restaurant. We were both sat at a table with a glass of red in front of us. Which is more than enough reason to talk to any stranger. Ricardo is an owner of Cuna de Tierra, a winery located about 40 km away from San Miguel in Dolores Hidalgo. I told Ricardo I hadn’t had any Cuna de Tierra wine for a few years. He said I should. He was right. He asked if I’d ever been to the Cuna de Tierra winery. I said I hadn’t. He said I should. He was right.
Wine was being produced by the Roman Catholic church around Dolores Hidalgo almost three hundred years ago. About a hundred years after that, the priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, one of the heroes of the Mexican revolution, was one of the celebrated growers. In 1810, the Spanish government sent in soldiers to destroy the vineyards and prevent them from competing with Spanish imports. It was an act that helped lead to El Grito, the cry by Father Hidalgo to launch the revolution. Ricardo Vega’s family bought the land forty years ago. When Cuna de Tierra was started about 16 years ago, the founders were confident that the soil conditions and climate would be ideal for growing outstanding grapes.
It’s only about a 35 minute drive to Cuna de Tierra from San Miguel. At this time of year, much of Mexico is emerald green and the wild flowering grasses look good enough to pick and arrange into bouquets. The housing estates along the road to Dolores have the tallest of walls, grandest of gates and most pretentious of names but still resemble empty parking lots. Antique shops, some of them with antiques younger than Don Day’s grandchildren, beckon with the best distressed surfaces you’ll ever see. And the hole in the wall restaurants you pass all specialize in a dish that includes the adjective rico.
The entrance to Cuna de Tierra is quite subtle with only a grapevine sculpture of the winery’s artistic (but somewhat obscure) logo symbolizing the cradle of the earth visible when you enter. There are about 40 acres of vines planted at the winery and it’s a welcoming sight to drive through some of them before you reach the first evidence of commercialization.
That evidence is a lookout tower, about ten metres tall, very mid-century modern in its natural concrete form, nestled amongst the distinctively shaped leaves of cabernet sauvignon vines. It wasn’t difficult for Don Day to stand up there (and Don Day’s Wife to sit down up there) and imagine the pride a farmer must have when he looks out over his almost-ready-to-harvest crop.
In the base of the tower, a handsome table is the centrepiece of a room occasionally used for dinners and tastings. I was sad that we weren’t going to use the room during our visit. Sad until we reached the prime building where all of the steps in the winemaking operation take place and I saw what was planned for there.
It’s another midcentury modern structure with tall, windswept grasses giving it a zenlike appearance. Pea gravel scrunched beneath our feet as we walked on to the paved courtyard and passed the bicycles used for touring the vineyards.
Back in the seventies, when Don Day first experienced oenotourism and visited wineries in France, most of them were dark, dank dungeons that smelled of mold, mildew and malt vinegar. The only art on the walls was created by spiders and one expected Bela Lugosi to emerge from behind a barrel at any moment. It always seemed that you were taking the proprietor away from something far more important than making money by selling you wine.
Oh how times have changed. Cuna de Tierra‘s winery is so clean I could hear my shoes squeaking as we inspected the stainless steel cold settling tanks. The lights were bright enough when we paraded past the barrels to read where in France, the United States or Hungary they came from.
Cuna de Tierra is currently marketing five wines commercially but before we tasted them, Ricardo Vega wanted an opinion on a wine that was yet to be bottled.
Now when Don Day hears the words Nebbiolo grapes it’s like hearing the words naked women. It gets Don Day very excited. Because Don Day thinks that Nebbiolo is one of the world’s great red wines.
About five years ago, Don Day tasted some Mexican Nebbiolo that was being produced in the Valle de Guadalupe and Don Day still has very fond and very vivid memories of that evening. Though it didn’t rival the great Barolos that are made from the finicky Nebbiolo grape in Piedmont, Italy, it could stand tall against the mid range Italian wines made from the grape in Northwestern Italy.
For Cuna de Tierra‘s first experience with Nebbiolo, the winery isn’t growing the grapes.
“If we planted vines now, it would be six years before there would be grapes ready to harvest so, as an experiment, we had them shipped in from the coast”, Ricardo Vega told me.
“Unlike other wineries that are blending Nebbiolo with Cabernet Franc or Syrah, we’re including some Tempranillo in the blend.”
Don Day (and Don Day’s Wife) certainly liked the result. The wine had the typical Nebbiolo nuances of violets, roses, mushrooms and prunes and I think Nebbiolo may have a better future than any other grape in Mexico.
The first wine we sampled from Cuna de Tierra‘s current commercial offering was Torre de Tierra white. It was the first time Don Day had even seen Cuna de Tierra`s Semillon since I first sampled it in the restaurant El Tomate on Mesones three or four years ago.
When Day Day used to spend a little time in the southwest of France, Don Day drank considerable amounts of Semillon though most often in a blend with Sauvignon Blanc and/or Muscadelle. Semillon is a favorite white grape but, if it’s not in a blend, it`s not one I usually choose. I would have liked more fruit and acidity in the Torre de Tierra but it was fine and as it`s rare to ever see any Mexican Semillon it was a pleasant surprise.
“We’re finding it challenging to grow white in this climate”, said Ricardo Vega, “but we’re continuing to experiment. We now have some Sauvignon Blanc planted but it will be a while before we’re ready to include it in a blend.”
Accompanying the Torre de Tierra white was a magnificent plate of meats and cheeses sourced from Luna de Queso on Salida a Celaya in San Miguel and prepared by the winery’s private (and handsome according to Don Day’s Wife) chef Julian Goldstone.
It was followed by a plate of ruby red smoked trout and the first of Cuna de Tierra‘s red wines.
Cuna de Tierra 2012 red is a blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 25% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Franc. It spends 9 months in a mix of new and one year old oak barrels and another 6 months in the bottle.
“I prefer my wines to be less oaky”, Ricardo Vega told me. “I prefer to let the grapes win not the wood.”
The influences from the oak are quite subtle in the Cuna de Tierra red and there are nice fruity flavors of cherries and black currants.
The second red we sampled, Pago de Vega 2011 is Cuna de Tierra‘s premium offering and spends 15 months in new oak barrels and 12 months in the bottle before it goes to market. The current blend is 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 20% Malbec and 10% Cabernet Franc.
“The tendency is to low alcohol and that’s where we’re going with our wines. I want to keep Pago de Vega at no more than 13%”, Ricardo Vega told me.
“It’s not hard to make wine but it’s hard to make good wine. The secret is in the blending…how to put different grapes together to end with something that is much more than the sum of its parts.”
Pago de Vega has similarities to a Bordeaux and the grapes used in the blend are four of the six allowed in a Bordeaux. It had a more refined taste than the first red with similar berry fruit on the nose but this time with more earthy and graphite aromas. Don Day has had Pago de Vega a few times in his life but only when other people are paying and likes just about everything about it except its price tag. It sells at retail for over $500 pesos a bottle which is even beyond Don Day’s splurge budget.
A fine risotto with shrimp had now arrived at the table as had Juan Manchon, Cuna de Tierra‘s winemaker. Juan grew up next door to Cuna de Tierra and, after earning a degree in oenology in Spain, returned to Mexico to take over the winemaking operation.
Our last wine was Mistela, a sweet white that bears Juan Manchon’s name and Ricardo Vega teased Don Day for a while with what grape it was made from. I failed the quiz miserably but I had a reason. The grape was one that the workers in the vineyard take home for their families. It’s a no name that is simply known as table grapes.
In San Miguel de Allende there is an absolute dearth of good sweet wines. Lately, the only thing Don Day has found at La Europea, our largest wine store is a Chilean late harvest Reisling that just doesn’t do it. I decided then and there to buy a case of Vino Generoso Mistela. Especially when I heard that a 500 ml bottle goes for $90 pesos.
Along with that case and a lot of fine memories of a day very well spent, I took one other thing home that afternoon, a bottle of Torre de Tierra red, the one Cuna de Tierra wine that I hadn’t tasted at the winery. It took me almost a day to open it.
Cuna de Tierra‘s Torre de Tierra red combines 80% Tempranillo with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that it’s the same blend as Vino de Piedra, one of the most celebrated and successful of all Mexican wines originating in the Valle de Guadelupe.
Don Day liked Torre de Tierra. If I had closed my eyes, as I often do after three or four glasses of wine, I would have thought that I was drinking a Rioja which isn’t exactly the worst thing in the world. Torre de Tierra red has done well in tastings against some tough competition, some fine Riojas right in their homeland, Spain. It’s not that available in Mexico. But it should be.
Don Day doesn’t often leave San Miguel de Allende in search of food and drink. Perhaps because San Miguel has so much to offer without ever stepping beyond its borders. But I should. And so should you. A day trip to Cuna de Tierra is a way to savor very good wine accompanied by very good food in delightful surroundings. It’s not the cheapest day you’ll ever spend. But if I think I’m worth it, you most definitely are.
Cuna de Tierra is located at Carretera Dolores Hidalgo – San Luiz de la Paz, Kilometer 11, in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico. There are numerous packages available that range from a simple tour through the vineyard with a glass of wine to a four course meal with four glasses of wine prepared by chef Julian Goldstone. Reservations are essential and can be made at 415 152 8205. The winery can also assist with arranging transportation.