Farm to table in Baja

Locavores set up shop at Mexican resort

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SAN JOSE DEL CABO, Mexico — My dinner at the thick, green oasis in the hills above Baja California's southern tip, known as Flora Farms, didn't begin with a meal. It began with a tour.

Late every afternoon, Flora staffers guide visitors through bushy rows of rosemary, radishes (three kinds), basil, asparagus, lemon grass, baby arugula, turnips (two kinds), eggplant, hibiscus and, well, more than can possibly be recounted here because nearly every ingredient employed by Flora's Field Kitchen — the restaurant that is the farm's engine — is raised in its fields.

Never mind that Flora Farms is surrounded by beige hills and cactus. After buying the land in 1996, owners Gloria and Patrick Greene, of Northern California, spent 10 years enriching the sandy soil with compost and cover crops.

Once it became viable, Flora Farms carved a growing season out of the nine months of the year that aren't the oppressively hot Mexican summer. Its bounty is now wide and robust, which is a point of pride at the farm. So are its 90-plus heirloom vegetables, many of which are pulled from the ground the day they are served.

"It means we serve the same radishes people were eating before the era of pesticides and genetic modification," my tour guide said. "It's like eating out of your grandmother's garden."

We spent 40 minutes strolling through the farm, and when we finished, it still wasn't time to eat. It was time for a cocktail.

As a small band strummed acoustic guitars and tapped bongos, I took a spot at Flora Farms' U-shaped bar to order a Farmarita, a margarita made with heirloom carrot juice. The drink arrived in an ice-filled jar, and I sipped it slowly amid a crowd of handsome West Coast Americans as an almost-full moon rose in an inky black sky and the palm trees turned to silhouettes.

It was all a lovely scene: lights strung through the trees, relaxed couples at tables of reclaimed wood and colorful plates of fresh food streaming by on a warm Mexican evening. The bar and restaurant had no walls, which allowed that Mexican evening to come in and greet us. It was destination dining to the fullest.

Finally, it was time to eat. The idea of "farm to table dining" usually comes with an ounce of faith from the customer: Whose farm is it? How far away is the farm? Are you sure no pesticides were used? Flora Farms presents one of the most convincing versions of the concept imaginable: The farm is steps outside the dining room.

Even what can't be grown is taken seriously at Flora Farms. For instance: The baker arrives each morning at 2. He spends several hours stoking a wood-fired oven to the proper temperature, then slaves over that day's breads and pizza crusts.

When my breadbasket arrived, the proof was clear: A variety of fresh, crusty breads was highlighted by a wheat loaf full of black olives, green olives and nuts. If there is such thing as pre-meal bread that is too tasty — because emptying the basket seems imperative — this was it.

The menu turns over regularly, depending on what the farm has yielded. As I perused that evening's version, I quizzed the waiter about the ingredients. Almost every last bit of it came from Flora Farms, he said, either at the farm where I sat or at what they call "the ranch," 15 miles away. That's where Flora grows larger-quantity vegetables, such as carrots and cucumbers, and raises its animals.

Was the rabbit in the strozzapreti pasta raised by Flora Farms? Yes, he said. How about the brown-sugar-cured bacon on the bacon-and-tomato pizza? Yes, that too. How about the soft, rich butter that arrived with my bread? Sure enough — churned on the farm.

Then the food started to arrive. The green gazpacho, poured over cucumber, radish, breadcrumbs, almonds, smoked grapes and a thin layer of paprika sauce, was just as complex as you might expect.

The radish slathered in butter and topped with salt was crunchy and fresh and harvested that morning. The asparagus, which arrived with a farm egg custard and pancetta vinaigrette, wasn't far behind. But it was the pork trotter (code for foot) ravioli and a bulb onion that stopped me cold. It was that little itty-bitty onion that did it. That one onion was supple and crunchy, smoky and tangy. It was a wholly different vegetable from what we buy off of American shelves. The advantage of the farm was becoming clear.

Finally came the main plates: chocolate clams and guanciale (which pulled off deft savory-zesty balance) and the "rabbit trio" — rabbit wrapped in pancetta, a shishito pepper (from the farm) stuffed with rabbit and rabbit confit.

"We've never had rabbit before," my server said. "We're just starting to raise it, and we're very excited about it."

And for good reason: Fresh, tender rabbit is a deliciously lean meat.

My meal ended with a luscious burrata topped with purple flowers (chive and basil blossoms), fennel, sorrel, parsley, chives and salt — an ideal creamy conclusion. However, one problem: The cheese was made of a local cow's milk that didn't come from the farm.

My server must have noticed a shadow of surprise cross my face because I was told, "We are in the process of getting our own dairy cows."

Impressive.

"We also have four pregnant goats. So eventually we'll have goat meat."

Of course they will.

If you go

Flora Farms is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day but Monday (closed) and Sunday (brunch only; the mango French toast is a stunner). Reservations are suggested for dinner. Situated in the hills above San Jose del Cabo, getting to Flora Farm is possible only by rental car or taxi (which will cost about $20 from San Jose and $100 from Cabo San Lucas). Tuesday is the well-regarded fried chicken night. Baked on homemade crust, the pizzas are world class; I was thrilled with my half arugula, half bacon-and-tomato pizza. Entrees are generally in the $20 to $40 range.

The farm also has a grocery open Tuesday through Sunday that sells house-made breads, meat and produce, jams, dressings and food to go.

More information: flora-farms.com

jbnoel@tribune.com

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