Considering so many recipes only call for a teaspoon of vanilla, is it really that important which extract one uses? The answer, like so many things, all depends upon who you ask.
Pure vanilla is definitely better than imitation. But what about the country it came from?
My Todos Santos friend Susan said, “I don’t use the vanilla from here. I use Kirkland which I think is very good.”
My Arizona friend Penny said, “I love Mexican vanilla. It seems a little stronger and maybe even a tad sweeter, if vanilla can ever be considered sweet. I think it has a wonderful smell and flavor. It’s not hugely different, but different enough that I prefer it to the vanilla I buy here.”
“It used to be that is was more pure and thus stronger and more flavorful. Check the ingredients and if there aren’t additives, it is great stuff,” my friend Jill said of Mexican vanilla.
It’s important to read the label to know if it’s pure vanilla or imitation. Finding authentic Mexican vanilla extract can be difficult because Mexico doesn’t have strict labeling laws. The beans might not even be from Mexico and additives are possible.
Vanilla was first discovered in Mexico. Today, according to reports, in terms of tons of vanilla produced it is No. 4 in the world behind Madagascar, Indonesia and China. It was used as a perfume of sorts before it began being added to drinks for flavoring.
“Grown from an orchid, vanilla beans are one of the world’s most difficult crops to cultivate. After harvest, the beans require an arduous and tricky nine-month process of sun drying to cure properly. Vanilla simply does not lend itself to mechanization or other methods of mass production,” according to CooksVanilla.com. “From start to finish, vanilla beans are produced by hand. This method is feasible only in poor countries where wages are low.”
Because of the process to bring pure vanilla extract to market it is pricey no matter what country makes it. It has been called the most labor-intensive crop in the world. The sad irony is locals in the country where vanilla extract is produced often cannot afford to buy it. That is why artificial extract is on the shelves.
Today, the United States is the largest consumer of vanilla, followed by Europe.
Even though the United States and Mexico are two of the largest citrus producing countries, what passes for commercial orange juice is strikingly different.
True, nothing beats fresh squeezed, but I’m too lazy to make it. There was a time when I drank OJ every day. Now I know better. Still, sometimes I want juice out of a container, even if it is mostly sugar water and not good for me. Even the not-from-concentrate orange juice falls into the unhealthy category.
Jumex is the main brand of juice in stores in Todos Santos. This Mexican company was founded in 1961. It has been importing juices to the United States since 1982.
What surprised me more than it coming in a box is that it was not refrigerated. Jumex mostly produces what it calls nectars. Nectar is fruit juice and pureed fruit. It might have pulp. The orange nectar from Jumex is pale in comparison to most U.S. orange juice brands, more like Tang. The taste is more Tang-like than orange juice, too.
For me, it acts as a thirst quencher – something to drink besides my usual water or Coke Light. Plus, it works fine for smoothies.
I can get U.S. orange juice in Mexico, but I have to travel for it. Costco in Cabo San Lucas sells Florida’s Natural orange juice (2.63 liters) for about $6. This is a bit spendy since it is imported. When I treated myself to it I discovered it wasn’t that special. I’ll stick with the Jumex orange nectar (1.89 liters) for about $2 when I have a craving.
Where do people often conduct business. At an office, right? In Baja people do the same thing. Only difference is sand, margaritas and the Sea Cortez are involved.
In this day of working remotely or needing to be connected to the boss or clients 24/7, people wouldn’t be lying if they answered a call, text or email and said they were at The Office. Business just might not be what they are conducting. The Office is actually a restaurant on the famous Médano Beach in Cabo San Lucas.
Its humble beginnings date to the 1970s when this area wasn’t much more than a fishing village. The big hotel/condo projects were still to come. Cabo wasn’t a destination for the masses; it was authentic Mexico in every direction.
A palapa (thatch roof made of palm fronds) was erected and a tiny kitchen built. Tacos and other Mexican fare were on the menu. Soon some water toys were available for rent. It was loosely known at The Office, a name that stuck and is now part of the local lore.
It’s open from 7am to 10pm seven days a week. It’s not uncommon for alcohol to be on the table at an early hour – and not just mimosas or bloody Marys. Dr. Hang Over walks around with a stethoscope, lab coat and notepad. He writes prescriptions for hangovers and who knows what else. A “shot” of something is always in order. Medicine is not administered in the form of a syringe, but instead in a shot glass.
Today The Office is much more than a makeshift eatery. It now shares Médano Beach with a slew of restaurants. The Sea of Cortez is just steps away. The scenery – natural and people watching – is wonderful. The hawkers selling their wares must stay a certain distance away, which is nice to be able to eat without that disturbance.
While it’s touristy, the food is good and there are options for vegetarians.
Long before big pharma came into existence people used the land to cure what ailed them. They still are. I tried it earlier this month.
The main ingredient in my homebrewed tea was a handful of leaves from the nicle plant. Having never heard of the plant didn’t alarm me. I was tired of an ongoing intestinal issue that started with a night in the bathroom, and then kept zapping my energy, and left me with a wonky appetite.
I’m blaming my friend Marilyn for passing her stomach virus along to me via contaminated tennis balls. (Nothing scientific about that diagnosis.) She chose big pharma to cure her. I started with whining and sleep (no relief), then tried papaya seeds per my a friend’s recommendation (that worked in the moment, but wasn’t long lasting), then went to 7-Up (always settles my stomach, but then I could tell I had had too much, which caused more stomach discomfort), then Jill started plucking things from her property. It was time to go all in.
She got the recipe from her housekeeper, Laura. Jill had also heard about nicle being a medicinal plant from other local women.
“Laura gave us a cutting that she rooted so that we would have the plant. It is actually a large bush that evidently has a lovely flower,” Jill said.
According to the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, the nicle plant is good for diarrhea and stomach ache, kidney ache, fever and constipation. The plant is listed under the section: Traditional Medicine of Baja California Sur.
The journal says, “We have now registered 252 local names of traditional medicinal resources in this area. One hundred twenty medicinal plants have been collected. From these 120 species, 80 have been botanically identified and 49 are reported here.”
The Center for Biological Diversity in a paper titled “Medicinal Plants At Risk” states, “In the United States, of the top 150 prescription drugs, at least 118 are based on natural sources.” The problem is a tiny percentage of tropical plants have been screened to know their medicinal applications, and those that have risk being overharvested.
Jill supplied the necessary leaves, while I stopped at the market on my way home to get an avocado and cinnamon stick. I’m not sure if the cinnamon is there for medicinal purposes or flavor, since it alone has health benefits. The tea tasted great. However, I am grateful for the warning that the liquid medicine would be a magenta color.
I was also warned I could feel flush, even start to sweat and that drinking it could make me feel a little high. I got warm, but nothing alarming. Then I felt a little off and extremely tired. I was in bed at 8pm and asleep moments later. The best part is the relief was almost instantaneous.
The problem is that I got cocky thinking I could immediately eat regular again. Wrong. My body let me know the bug wasn’t gone. Another night of feeling like I was prepping for a colonoscopy. While I ended up on antibiotics to kill the germs, at least I was in Mexico. No doctor’s visit required. I just walked into the pharmacy to get what I needed. It also helps to have a sister who is a nurse practitioner to tell me how much to take and how often.
1 handful nicle leaves
½ handful quaba leaves
3 small mango leaves
1 avocado pit
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups water
Bring the above to a light boil and drink.
If it had not been located on a dirt road, I’m not sure I would have believed I was in Mexico anymore. That’s what going to Flora Farms is like. I might as well have been in the United States based on the prices and concept.
This 56-acre organic farm in San Jose del Cabo provides food for the restaurant and market on-site, as well as for the homeowners. The grounds are stunning, with bananas dangling off trees in bunches, nopales cacti growing in a line like the other row crops, and herbs ready to be plucked by a sous chef. Guided tours of the garden are available.
While I enthusiastically embrace the farm-to-table concept, the feel of Flora Farms was a bit off putting, even though in some ways it is impressive. It felt a bit like a tourist trap. Like a place only visited by white people. Other than workers, only white people were there. This isn’t to say Mexicans with money don’t go there. Money, though, is definitely what you need. The fact everything was in English was telling.
Flora Farms offers cooking classes for the public. This week people could have paid $115 to learn how to prepare roasted vegetable tacos. This included lunch and a cocktail. As a vegetarian, let me tell you this would be a rip off.
A cocktail is all I’ve had at Flora Farms. While my Farmarita was unique (it’s made with heirloom carrot juice), it wasn’t worth $15 (U.S.).
What I didn’t know until going to Flora Farms in January is that people live there. This is from Flora Farm’s website, “The limited remaining inventory is for sale, however is [stet] available only to those who receive a private invitation.” It’s that exclusive. Residents at least have a private pool.
It doesn’t cost money to walk through the grounds, check out the restaurant, bar and little store. It’s a bit of a drive, though. A few stores are in the compound – selling soaps, clothing and other goods. There is also a spa.
Even though I didn’t eat there, I’m still wondering what all the hype is about. I had Airbnb guests rave about Flora Farms, even leaving behind some of the granola and mango jam for me. The granola tasted like any I’ve had from a grocery store and the jam wasn’t as good as what my friend, Jill, makes.
Sometimes you have to splurge. That’s what going to The Rooftop in Cabo San Lucas was all about. Oh, and the view.
It’s the iconic arch that Cabo is known for that is the big draw. The rugged rocks protrude from the coast like a border of sorts. Which they are. At the point is where the Sea of Cortez and Pacific Ocean meet. It’s magical to watch the sunset from here as that big globe settles behind the mountains of rocks. Soon the lights of Cabo begin to twinkle and the whole area looks more like a little city than a beach oasis.
The outside bar overlooks the Sea of Cortez, which at times can look more like the Pacific at this location. Waves were big enough people were surfing below.
In 2018, Condé Nast Traveler named The Rooftop one of the 10 best rooftop bars in the world. It sits on the sixth floor, which is the top floor, of The Cape hotel. The hotel opened in summer 2015.
The vibe is young and hip; we definitely were in the minority that night with our group of six ranging in age from 50s to 80s. It didn’t stop us from enjoying the people watching as well as the natural scenery.
A disc jockey was spinning tunes at a level that allowed for conversations. Mixologists were working their magic in a circular bar about a third of the way in from the front entrance. Walking in there is a Champagne station with multiple choices; all served by the glass.
Various seating areas line the perimeter, with Plexiglas in place to not obstruct the expansive views. Farther back are cushy seats that open to the hills behind town. It’s designed so nearly everyone has a view.
The bill came to $133 for six cocktails and four bottles of water. Specialty cocktails come with a price like one would find in the U.S., ranging from $13 to $17. Even so, based on flavor I can recommend the Sixth Floor ($16) – whiskey, yuzu, lemon, mint and raspberry syrup.
- Located inside The Cape hotel in Cabo San Lucas.
- For reservations, email email@example.com.
- Opens at 5pm seven days a week.
Street food in most countries is an experience in culinary art not found in a restaurant. It can be better, more authentic.
One of my favorites in Mexico is esquites. It’s like nachos in a bag, with corn being the dominate ingredient. The name comes from the Aztec word ízquitl meaning toasted corn. It would have been served in a cup or vessel of some sort before packaged foods came along. Today it could easily be made in homes with totopos – tortilla chips — of any kind. Without the chips, it could be a salad of sorts.
My niece, Veronica, introduced me and my mom to this treat in Todos Santos. While most people would have this as a snack, it’s been a meal for me since then. That night the three of us shared one.
I watched as the bag of Tostitos was slit open along the side to make a pouch. Veronica adeptly communicated in Spanish what ingredients to put on. Corn kernels cooking in a large vat of water were scooped out and spread over the chips. I don’t know what all was piled on except crema, which is like sour cream, hot sauce and Cotija cheese. Lime juice, mayonnaise and chile powder are other common ingredients.
The combination is decadent, delightful and definitely not healthy.
Veronica likes to squeeze the bag so the chips break into pieces. This is easier for eating; which is done with a fork or spoon. I wish the proprietors would crunch the chips before the ingredients are poured on; it can be tricky doing so with a full bag.
I would gladly have this more often, but the little cart in Todos Santos is only open at night. I’m too lazy to drive to the other side of town. Plus, it really is something that should be shared. I was excited during the Day of the Dead festivities last fall to see esquites being sold close to the town square. I converted Sue to being a fan of this treat.
When I was on the mainland last year there was a stand in Tlaquepaque selling esquites; something Rhoda and Liz had not had. Options for toppings were much greater there, which included beans and meat. We skipped the latter. With Rhoda well versed in the language, we knew what we were getting. By the time it was loaded up two hands were practically needed to hold it because it was so heavy. The three of us had no problem devouring it. We were sufficiently stuffed; making me wonder how I ever finish one on my own.
While Mexico may not be the first country one thinks of for wine, it was the first country in North America to make wine.
Bodegas de Santo Tomás is the oldest winery in Baja California and the second oldest in Mexico. Because it is outside the main tourist corridor, it doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic. We were the only ones there as we passed through in October.
The tasting room, nestled between towering eucalyptus trees, is separate from the main winery, with visitors not allowed to go to the production facility which was built in the 1980s. It didn’t matter. We were content to sip on a variety of wines in the modern tasting room. And when we wanted to taste ones beyond the menu, the employee gladly obliged. This paid off, as we purchased a few not on the regular tasting menu – a white table wine, Cab and Barbera.
The tasting room employee said Barbera is a hard grape to work because of its acidity. This is just one of many Italian varietals that Baja is known for. Winemaker Laura Zamora is credited with upgrading the wines at Santo Tomás.
With a plethora of olive trees, much of that is turned into oil. Several may be sampled in the tasting room.
Santo Tomás is located in the original wine region of Baja known today as the Antigua Ruta del Vino. It consists of the Valle de Santo Tomás, Valle de la Grulla, and Valle de San Vicente. It is just south of the better known Valle de Guadalupe. Santo Tomás Valley, where the winery is located, is about 25 miles south of Ensenda and inland 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean. It’s at an elevation of approximately 750 feet.
A wall from an old rock structure that appears to still be crumbling is a reminder of the humble beginnings. The winery was founded in 1888 by Francisco Adonegui of Italy and Miguel Olmart of Spain. It was named after the mission in the area, Mission Santo Tomás de Aquino.
It has only had five owners, with the current one living in Ensenada, Mexico. It is now part of Baja United Wines, which includes Monte Xanic, Las Nubes, Relieve Vinicola, Vena Cava, and Valle Girl Vino.
Driving in, signs in Spanish and English disperse facts about the winery, such as:
- Santo Tomás has 865 acres of vineyards distributed in three valleys – San Antonis de las Minas, San Vicente de Ferrer and Santo Tomás.
- There are 21 varietals.
- The olive grove has 45,000 trees encompassing 16 varietals.
- Santo Tomas was the first winery in Mexico to have a female winemaker. With her at the helm, the winery has won more than 250 international medals.
- Most of the material used to build the winery is recycled.
When it comes to Mexico libations the choices are usually tequila or beer, seldom is it wine. But it should be.
Mexico wine doesn’t register high on the list of international wines because most of what is bottled stays in the country. The main wine region is the Valle de Guadalupe, about 90 minutes from the U.S. border in Alta Baja. What isn’t consumed locally is often shipped to restaurants and stores in Mexico City, and other cities on the mainland. Baja produces 90 percent of the 45 million liters of wine that are produced in Mexico each year.
It’s a growing industry, with more than 200 wineries in Alta Baja. Some are elaborate, looking like castles that would be more appropriate in the Napa Valley. Others are more modest, more like something that would be found in El Dorado County. Most charge to taste. This is one way they make money.
The Mediterranean climate is much like that of the Wine Country of Northern California. This is why many of the varietals are Italian like Nebiollo, Spanish like Tempranillo, and French like Chenin Blanc. Those looking for Cabernets and Chardonnays will find those as well.
Winemaking in Mexico goes back to the Spanish missionaries who first planted grapes. At the museum on the main road much of the region’s history is told, though, all in Spanish. This includes the influence of Russians who settled in the valley in the early 1900s. One lesson learned is there are five wine valleys in the area, with Valle de Guadalupe being the most famous. The museum is a stop worth making, especially with an entrance fee of 50 pesos – about $2.50.
While Bodegas de Santo Tomas is the oldest winery in Baja, having been founded in 1888 just south of Valle de Guadalupe, it is Monte Xanic that is credited with being the first in the region to produce more upscale wine. The first release was in 1989. About 60,000 cases are produced a year under the labels Gran Ricardo, Limited Editions, Monte Xanic and Monte Xanic Calixa.
Monte Xanic is popular and requires a tasting reservation of at least 72 hours in advance. Without one, you won’t even get past the guard and through the gate.
Still, there are plenty of wineries that are more welcoming to spontaneity. With a day and half to taste, the only reservation we made was for lodging. Our two nights at Casa Mayoral were a delight. The breakfasts were delicious, the room spacious and clean, and the patio ideal for another glass of wine while looking out to the valley. A bonus – it’s pet friendly. Staff recommendations for where to taste and eat were spot on.
A delightful wine experience was near our bed and breakfast – Cieli. With the owner being Italian, he opted to plant mostly varietals from his home land. An interesting one was Blanc di Grenache. Not normally one of my favorite flavors, it was unique enough that a couple bottles found their way into the Jeep. It was the first time I had tasted a white Grenache. The tastings are inside, while outside is a deck looking across the valley.
Las Nubes came recommended from our bed and breakfast, a friend and the guidebook. The setting is stunning. Appropriately las nubes means the clouds, which is the perspective we felt like we had of the valley below us. It was so enchanting we bought a bottle of red (Seleccion de Barricas) to go with their cheese plate, which was substantial enough for lunch. All of that for about $30 (U.S.)
In many ways, Valle de Guadalupe reminds me of the Napa Valley, with the highway being the main road, with another road (think Silverado Trail) being the parallel secondary route. In between this valley and the more famous one are various tiny roads (in Baja they are dirt) that lead to more wineries and eateries, as well as offering a short cut between the two to reach the main roads. A major difference, though, is there is no traffic in Baja. Another bonus is how gracious people are (workers and guests); that is harder to find in Napa and Sonoma counties these days.
The only winery we found with a hint of pretentiousness was El Cielo. We left without tasting. Life is too short for such attitude. We went down the road to Paoloni, where we found much to enjoy and some to buy for later.
The harvest is similar to that of Northern California, with all the grapes plucked from the vines by mid-October. Many of the vines look dry, though. Water is not in abundance anywhere on the peninsula.
“There is a fight over water. Now there are like 215 wineries,” a Las Nubes worker tells us. “We irrigate. To not water you need old vines. Most aren’t. There was not much rain this year.”
Also on this side of the valley is Adobe Guadalupe. Owner Tru Miller, who is from Holland, has a winemaker from Chile. The operation started in 1997, with the first vintage released in 2001. With the owner’s son having died, all the wines are named after angels. Roxanna, who shared stories of Adobe Guadalupe with us, said her favorite is Gabriel – which is 25 percent Merlot, 25 percent Malbec and 50 percent Cabernet.
While the wines were good here, the Adobe Foodtruck on site was even better. It was truly one of the best meals I’ve had — and for less than $20.
Leda, who owns the truck, came out to say hi and see how things were. The sautéed mushrooms we ordered are her favorite. I have such a thing for mushrooms that I didn’t want to share with Sue. She was OK with this since she had the camarones all to herself. Those shrimp were fairly local, having come from San Felipe. Sue said they were the best she’s ever had.
“Everything on this table is just unbelievable,” Sue added. We also ordered caprese salad, which was more like an appetizer than salad, and roasted potatoes, with what tasted like cayenne seasoning. A side of French bread was perfect for the mushrooms and shrimp. It was served in plates that would be found in a high-end restaurant, with service to complement it all.
This food truck is so popular it takes reservations. It’s a must stop, as the whole of Valle de Guadalupe should be.
These days it seems like few wineries limit the varietals of wine they bottle. Testarossa Winery is one of the exceptions. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the specialties here.
It is the fourth oldest winemaking facility in California, with ties still to the Jesuits at Santa Clara University. This Los Gatos winery was known at Novitiate Winery when it was built in 1888.
The Jesuits were able to produce wine during Prohibition because it was called “altar wine,” though it wasn’t just kept for use on Sundays. To this day Testarossa makes two dessert wines in the tradition of the Jesuits.
It was in 1993 that Rob and Diana Jensen started the winery. Testarossa was his nickname while studying in Italy. It means red head. They moved to the current location in 1997. While it is not far from downtown Los Gatos, it is at an elevation of about 2,000 feet.
About 30,000 cases are produced each year; most going directly to the consumer. While Testarossa focuses on the two varietals, they have 46 variations, with about 15 available at any given time. Many lots only produce 200 to 400 cases. New wines are released every six weeks.
Grapes are not grown on site. Instead, the winery says it focuses on getting the best grapes from regions throughout California. It taps into 18 vineyards to source the fruit. Most are in San Lucia, with Sonoma, Monterey and the Santa Rita Hills being other locations.
While the facility has grown through the years, some of the original rock walls built for the Jesuits are still part of the structure.
Live music and other events are common throughout the year.
Testarossa was a great find. You don’t feel like you are in the Bay Area, and definitely aren’t in an overcrowded wine region. Even better, the wines are tasty.
- Address: 300 College Ave., Los Gatos.
- Hours: 11am to 5pm daily. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.