A Wine and Cheese Weekend

Wine and cheese in Mexico – who knew?! We are cheeseheads, after all, and were thrilled to find there is a wine and cheese route just a few hours away from Mexico City. We checked it out with our friends Josette and Scott during Tequisquiapan’s wine and cheese festival.

Matt was the tour director and Scott was our accommodating designated driver (he’s a beer guy) for the weekend. We started out at a reasonable hour on Saturday with our only goal to arrive at the Freixinet winery by 2 pm because we had tickets for its paella festival and we were told the paella could run out. First stop was the Neole cheese shop for a tour and tasting. We were joined by a tour group and headed behind the cheese shop for the simple tour that doubled as our daily Spanish lesson. We checked out the cheese making area, had the process described to us and then enjoyed our first cheese tasting of the trip. We would learn at our second cheese tasting that orange slices are to cleanse the palate, sweet is to temper the taste of the cheese and salty is to intensify the cheese’s taste. I used this guide as my excuse to eat the sweet pieces of “ate de membrillo” or quince jelly every time I tried a bit of blu or smoked cheese.

Even though we were full from breakfast and our subsequent cheese tasting, next stop was another cheese shop. Except we couldn’t find it and even Matt had to concede that despite its presence on his GPS, it didn’t really exist. No worries, it was time for some wine instead and we stopped at Viñedos Los Rosales. The grounds were beautiful, the servers were friendly and patiently described the wines we could taste and… the wines were terrible. So terrible that while we only had tiny 1-ounce pours, we still furtively dumped them out on the ground instead of finishing them. Driver Scott could rest easy that he hadn’t missed anything as he had taken a pass on the tasting, and we could all be confident that our $2 wine tasting fee was worth knowing never to drink Los Rosales wine again.

To get the bad taste out of our mouths, we quickly turned into Viñedos La Redonda for our second tasting. We opted to skip the tour (as we had done at Los Rosales) and headed to the tasting room at the front of the property. While the attendants couldn’t have been less interested in explaining the wine to us, the view was great and the wines were good.

La Redonda

After enjoying our wine and the view, it was off to the paella festival at Finca Sale Vivé by Freixenet. What a great time! After the usual ex-pat confusion (we had advanced tickets but had to stand in a ticket line anyhow), we got our glasses and our complimentary wine and were off to enjoy the fest. We started with a review of the entries into the paella competition. The entrants were gastronomy schools and the offerings looked amazing so we purchased from the friendliest group who told us their special ingredient was mezcal. Next up was a tour of the winery including the underground wine cave, which the winery claims is the only one in Latin America. It was a refreshing break from the sun and nice because we could wander about at our own pace.

Fun in the Cave

Back outside we checked out the hot air ballon, refilled our glasses and continue our wandering. The entrepreneurs who were supposed to be signing people up for rides the next morning were running a little side business taking pictures of people inside the balloon. We admired the effort and stepped inside. The festival crowd was laid back and family-friendly (despite the occasional passed out over indulger) and there were several seating areas with music. We headed through the vineyards, found a seat at the outdoor tent and enjoyed a mariachi band and then a band playing tunes like Stand by Me. I don’t think I have ever been in a vineyard surround by cacti before.

We left the festival and headed back to enjoy the pool at our lovely hotel. Afterwards, we returned to the main square of Tequisquiapan and went to La Vaca Feliz (The Happy Cow) cheese shop. It was crowded and we were a bit overwhelmed when the gentleman behind the counter took an interest in us and began describing all of the cheeses and giving us samples. We must have tasted 15 kinds of cheese! The man (if we got his name, I forgot it) was actually an optometrist who loved cheese and was eager to practice his English with us. We bought  couple of kinds but assured him we would be back on Monday before we left town. We did, in fact, return, and while we were disappointed that many of the cheeses we intended to buy had sold out over the weekend, we found plenty of other kinds to buy instead. And while our new friend wasn’t working, the woman who assisted us also generously gave us about another dozen samples.

Day 2 was as exciting and wine-filled as Day 1 and once again began with cheese. We went to Bocanegra – the companion cheese shop to Neole where they have a cheese cave. It looks like a winery – a gorgeous building with cool art in a beautiful setting. Wisconsin cheesemakers should take note.

It wasn’t all wine and cheese (and the occasional beer) – we were headed to the Pueblo Mágico (Magical Town) of Bernal to see the Rock of Bernal. Mexico designates certain towns as “Magical Towns” to promote tourism, protect traditions, provide jobs and highlight the towns’ cultural or natural significance. 83 towns or villages throughout Mexico have the designation, and Tequisquiapan is also one. I was game to explore another Pueblo Mágico, but I was confused by Bernal – a big rock was all it took? My first glimpse of the rock did not impress me.

Rock of Bernal

I did some quick internet research and learned it was the 3rd highest monolith on the planet. What the heck is a monolith? The Merriam-Webster definition, “a single great stone often in the form of an obelisk or column” didn’t do much to enlighten me.

We got to Bernal, parked the car and wandered around the cute town. The rock grew on me – the town was in its shadow and it was cool to see it looming above. We wandered in and out of shops on our way to the main square. We were admiring the church when we noticed a bunch of kids hurrying to stand before the door. They were eagerly awaiting something, which I didn’t think it was for mass to start, when the door opened and a guy started throwing coins to the kids. They scrambled for their share and then resumed the wait. What the heck? We saw a family come out with a newly baptized baby and Scott surmised that the tradition must be to throw coins to kids after your child is baptized. Sure enough, we entered the church and saw the set up for another baptism. Later research confirmed that this practice is called a “bolo” and the baby’s godfather throws the coins to ensure a prosperous life for his godchild.

Pueblo Mágico

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We went to a restaurant called El Negrito, which is a little disconcerting to an American as it translates to pickaninny. (Peru had a restaurant in the airport called La Negrita.) The terrace view was lovely and we enjoyed our lunch before heading back to Tequis for a cool down in the pool before going to the Wine and Cheese Festival.

Terrace View

While I think Matt, Josette and Scott would have been happy to stay at the pool and skip the wine and cheese festival, they humored me and we headed to the park, paid our entry fees, bought our glasses and started tasting. There was a pavilion set up with several rows of wine and cheese stands and a stage in the front of the grounds with several benches. I think there also was a food area, but we never made it there as we arrived with only two hours left of the festival and were focused on the tastings. While it was the last day of the festival and you could tell some of the vendors were ready to pack up, most were very friendly and happy to explain their wares to us. Like the paella fest, the vibe was relaxed. We left with several bottles of wine and cheese, so it was a worthwhile addition to our busy day.

The next morning after our final stop for cheese at La Vaca Feliz, we left Tequis with 9 bottles of wine and about the same number of cheeses. My only disappointment – no cheddar!

* In addition to Matt, as usual, photo credit for this post goes to Josette and Scott. Thanks, friends!

A Weekend in the Country

From the first time I heard of Granja Porcon, I had no interest in going there. About an hour from Cajamarca, numerous people mentioned it to us as a “must see” tourist site. But when I asked what one did there, all I heard was that it was in the country and had a zoo. In the country? Don’t I live in the country? Roosters wake me up long before dawn, cows graze on the side of the running path, horses frolic along the bank of the river a few blocks from my house, I recognize the burros that carry a farmer’s milk down our street every day…how much more country did I need? As for a zoo, I have mixed feelings about them and was pretty sure a small, private zoo would make me feel less mixed and more distressed. Add to the fact that Granja Porcon is run by Evangelists and had been described as both a commune and a cult and I was not sold.

But as our entertainment options are limited, when some friends suggested we go there for the weekend in order to take advantage of the hiking trials, I was persuaded. We set off Friday after work in Korrine’s dad’s car with Rodrigo as our driver. Our first stop was at the grocery store to buy some wine that we intended to “sneak” onto the grounds. To be honest, while alcohol was not served on the premises, I never saw any mention that it wasn’t allowed, but it added to our high school feel for the weekend: dad’s car and smuggled booze.

The drive out of Cajamarca was pretty and uneventful. After about an hour we arrived at the turnoff to Granja Porcon. Another 25 minutes and we were at the gate, just as the sun was setting. We had reserved a cabin and the guard gave us directions to get there. I tried listening to the directions in order to help navigate, but after he kept describing the roads we were not supposed to take, I gave up. We started up the mountain, darkness descended and we had no idea where we were going. We stopped at one place where we saw lights and the woman there told us to continue up the road. Just as we left, a man ran after us shouting that we should take a left – but left led us back down the mountain. We confirmed that we were supposed to go up the mountain, took a right to do so and then laughed at his “left” direction. 20 minutes later we were not laughing when we could see nothing and were utterly lost. We headed back down the mountain, intending to go back for more directions, when a lady on the side of the road waved us down, introduced herself as Marleny and told us that she had been waiting for us to show us our cabin. The “left” made sense as we had to take a left to go down a small, dark road that led only to the cabin – a left that was only about 5 minutes away from the house where we had asked directions! It was now about 8:00 and there was only one restaurant – back down the mountain – that was open to serve us dinner. We unloaded the car, nervously trying to hide our bottles, called in our dinner order and then began the trek down the mountain. Marleny came with us because she thought we would get lost otherwise. She was right!

The way back

The way back

Despite calling ahead by about 1/2 hour, the restaurant was deserted. A man quickly appeared and opened the place up for us. It was a cold, beautiful, rustic room with windows that overlooked the Porcon main square, but at the late hour we could only see a few lights in the distance. We enjoyed a lovely meal of chicken soup and fried trout and headed back up the mountain to our cabin, stopping to pick up a thermos of hot, boiled water from Marleny’s house. A few drinks later we called it a night. It was freezing in the cabin – the only heat was the fireplace in the main room and the beds had those old fashioned wool blankets that weigh you down so you can barely move. Matt and I slept with our hats on and were still cold!

Warming at the heath

Warming at the hearth

The day dawned overcast, but it was still breathtaking. It felt as though we were on a movie set – gorgeous setting, rustic cabin, cows mooing, lambs bleating and roosters crowing – unreal.

We headed back to the restaurant for a breakfast of caldo verde (my favorite soup) with numerous stops along the way to admire the vicuñas and avoid the lambs. Vicuñas are cousins of alpacas and llamas (and guanacos, another wild camelid in the Andes) and are prized for their wool, which can run up to $3,000 a yard! The animals can only be shorn every 3 years and then only about a pound of wool results from each animal. While they are described as shy, the ones at Porcon are obviously accustomed to tourists because we got amazingly close to them. They were gorgeous – so graceful and delicate. The lambs, on the other hand, were just hilarious. They were all over the road and it was all Rodrigo could do not to hit any of them. The downside of all the lambs was that meant there was no sheep cheese for sale – something I was really looking forward to as I am so tired of the limited cheese selection here.

Once we tore ourselves away from the vicuñas, I then became fascinated by a hummingbird feeding outside of the window at the restaurant. It was quite a dramatic scene when another hummingbird appeared and they began fighting. In addition the view was breathtaking.

Fight!

Fight!

After breakfast, we wandered into the town to check out the weaving shops, dairy and zoo.

I found the dairy products to be disappointing – while there were some decent fresh cheeses with herbs and a brick that was sharper than anything else here, nothing came close to amazing Carr Valley or other Wisconsin-produced cheeses. The others were hyping the ice cream and I, lover of Kopps frozen custard, couldn’t wait. What a letdown! The so-called “ice cream” was really ice-milk on a stick and not at all creamy. There were many exotic fruit flavors, but that was little consolation for me. After that crushing disappointment, we headed to the zoo.

 

Zoo Sign

Zoo sign

The zoo was interesting. One the one hand, the old-fashioned, small enclosures were incredibly depressing. But all zoo enclosures are depressing – no matter how big the enclosure, the lions and tigers still pace in captivity, the birds can’t fly free and many animals are far from their natural habitats. On the other hand, it was unbelievable how close we could get to the animals. As I was watching the spectacled bears, native to Peru, walk along the fence, a little girl stuck her finger into the enclosure and I started panicking, wondering if it is socially acceptable for a stranger to yell at a kid when you think she might lose a finger (and then, to try to think of how to say it in Spanish!). Thankfully, her mother saw her in the seconds these thoughts raced through my brain and pulled her away. Yikes!

After the zoo and a mediocre meal in town, we headed back up the mountain to our paradise. Marleny, who was parking cars in town, tried to persuade us to stop at the trout farm or come back to see the 4 o’clock milking, but as neither of those things are novelties to us, we declined and relaxed the afternoon and evening away. Well, except for the parts where Rodrigo smoked us out of the house by trying to start the wood stove in the kitchen, not realizing that he had blocked the flue and that we didn’t have the key to the kitchen door so there was no ventilation and then, when Marleny showed up unannounced and we scurried around trying to hide our wine bottles and glasses!

We were all in bed by 10 pm, but that allowed Rodrigo, Matt and me to get up early and climb to the summit of Mt. Porcon the next morning. It was only an hour hike on a dirt path to reach the top and the views were amazing. After all my reluctance to go, I completely fell for Porcon and would love to go back to do more hiking. It was peaceful and picturesque – the perfect getaway weekend.