By Carla White
There’s cheese in them thar’ hills–a whole bunch of it, in fact, and it is located in Marcelo Castro’s cheese cave, home of the Ramonetti European-style cheese for which Baja California has become famous. This is a super-easy day-trip from Ensenada, but finding this place is not entirely intuitive, so be sure to see the directions at the end of this post. Generally, the cheese cave is open only on weekends and you will need reservations. Also, be sure to ask for a menu for the ranch’s Sunday barbecue lunch! When to go? Spring, early summer and fall are best, when the winding road is a-bloom with yellow and purple wildflowers.
On my previous visit, our arrival at the Cava de Marcelo and Rancho La Campana (the actual family ranch) had been a bit quiet with a tour of the cheese production area, and then a visit to his remarkable underground cheese cava, where cheeses are stored at controlled temperatures and which is much like a subterranean winery in its ambience and beauty. Clearly, Ramonetti cheeses have become one of Baja’s treasured attractions. Today, there are lovely arbored picnic areas surrounded by abundant flower beds, where visitors can taste cheeses, wines and have an assortment of foods made to order.
But first things first. We were greeted by a culinary student in Ensenada who works weekends at the cheese cave. She guided us through the upper floor of the cava, where restored photos of the Ramonetti family bespeak their journey from Switzerland to America’s great northwest in the 1800s to find their fortunes. Marcelo’s forebearers were drawn to Baja in the late 1870s, when the region experienced a short-lived gold rush. Although the gold didn’t pan out, Swiss immigrant Don Pedro Ramonetti discovered that the valley floor was rich with another treasure–agua dulce (sweet water), that was both abundant and healthy for feed crops and lucky cows. He began making cheese, with three generations of Ramonettis (Don Juan, Don Ruben and now Don Marcelo) following in his footsteps.
Today, the Ramonetti’s same sweet water helps nurture a mix of clover, alfafa and grasses that feed Marcelo’s herd of approximately 300 cows, 85 of which are used as ‘producers’ for cheese products at any one time. All of the cheese production is done manually, because “machines are no substitute for expert hands,” according to Marcelo. “We only produce what we can make by hand without adding chemicals: 39 pints of milk go into every pound of cheese, which is pressed without whey and the 50 aged rounds are washed by hand,” he adds. He takes us through the extremely clean production area, where he produces approximately 100,000 pounds of cheese annually.
In the sophisticated underground cellar, 13 feet underground, visitors can taste cheeses for $10 per person. The cheeses are arranged on platters, from fresher cheeses to those that have been aged. Most notable in the cellar are the spectacular hand-laid stone walls that are both beautiful and functional as insulators. In this environment, the cheese develops a thick outer layer that augments the aging process, creating what Marcelo describes as a smooth and creamy cheese, with a slightly strong aftertaste.
In earlier times, it is true that the Ramonettis excelled at producing the cheese of the land—milder country cheeses that were sold to paisanos. What has brought Real del Castillo to the forefront as one of Baja’s culinary icons is the more European flair that Marcelo has achieved in his cheeses. Today, he produces a mild basil, a pepper, along with a variety of others that include more full-bodied Real del Castillo cheeses that might compare to manchegos or gorgonzolas. Ramonetti cheeses are served at some of the finest restaurants in northern Baja, as well, including La Querencia restaurant in Tijuana, Manzanilla and Muelle Tres in Ensenada and Laja restaurant in the Valle de Guadalupe, among others.
But there is really nothing like eating Marcelo’s cheese on the spot, on a warm summer afternoon, with good companions and a glass of Parallelo wine. The barbecues and tours are available on weekends from1 p.m .to 6 p.m., by appointment, and the house specialties include Sonora ribeye steaks, scrumptious duck sandwiches, Ramonetti oysters on the half-shell, and much more.
Driving to the ranch can be a bit confusing, because it is located well off Highway 3. If you are heading east-bound, you will pass the Ojos Negros Pemex station on your right, and the Ojos Negros turn-off on your left. You will continue several miles down the highway. On your left, you will see a steel warehouse structure and several small signs that are posted on the fence. One of those signs that says ‘Cave de Quesos’ will point you down a paved road. From that point, continue approximately 7 kilometers (the road will become a dirt road), following the ‘Cave de Quesos’ signs. Eventually, you will come to Rancho La Campana, an oasis of tall green trees, black and white cows, and rolling fields. To contact Marcelo and arrange a tour or talk about the delicious Sunday lunch menus, email email@example.com.
Do you have any cheesy Baja experiences to share? Aged or fresh-out-of-the cow, we want to hear!
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