The Duck Lady of the Valle de Guadalupe

Mexican home-cooking in Baja California’s wine country

Fernabella's Pato del Horno, Francisco Zarco, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico

They say that the best food in Mexico doesn’t come from its restaurants, but from its home kitchens where food is cooked and shared as an expression of love. Anabella Fierro and her husband Fernando Benitez opened their home in the Valle de Guadalupe to my family last month where we enjoyed five courses of her extraordinary home cooking. It was one of the culinary highlights of the year.

The meal features and culminates in duck — slow roasted for five hours and served in a savory jus of its own broth. A duck sacrificed from the flock kept in the couple’s backyard.

Anabella and Fernando are now opening their door to parties of 2-8 guests who want to enjoy a home-cooked dinner at their quaint house in Francisco Zarco at the northern end of Baja California’s wine country. I highly recommend this as a unique alternative to the region’s award-winning restaurants. Our visit with Anabella and Fernando was cordial, warm and comfortable and the dining experience was one-of-a-kind.

Fernabella's Pato del Horno, Francisco Zarco, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico

Anabella Fierro and Fernando Benitez.

Finding Fernabella’s

Anabella and Fernando moved to Francisco Zarco in the Valle de Guadalupe five years ago after retiring from their respective professions in Mexicali. Their first post-retirement move was to lease space for a local restaurant where they could serve local conejo (rabbit) and codorniz (quail).

They found the perfect spot just across the road from the Bibayoff winery. If you frequent the Valle de Guadalupe there’s no doubt that you’ve seen Fernabella’s old world Tudor style cottages just off the east side of Highway 1.

Fernabella's Pato del Horno, Francisco Zarco, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico

Fernabella’s, Valle de Guadalupe.

After two years, the couple closed the restaurant at Fernabella’s, but converted the property to a comfortable B&B, as it remains today. “We had to close because Anabella was no longer able to keep up in the kitchen with her chronic pain,” Fernando confided.

Indeed, years ago, Anabella was in an accident in La Rumorosa where her car plummeted 20 meters down the area’s notoriously steep, rocky slopes, damaging her cervical vertebrae. As a lawyer in the Mexicali office of Mexico’s federal court system, carrying heavy stacks of documents and books only served to exacerbate her pain.

With the restaurant closed and no other source of income – Anabella’s government benefits are due to expire – the couple found themselves in need of a way to pay for her continued rehabilitation. They found a solution literally in their own backyard.

Ducks as Therapy. And Dinner.

“I started to raise ducks because it is very relaxing to see them swimming and I’m a lover of birds and nature,” Anabella shared in a message via Facebook, introducing her new proposal. “After some time, I’ve found myself with thirty ducks and have started doing some cooking experiments with them.” Anabella’s experiments are now a foodie’s EUREKA!

Fernabella's Pato del Horno, Francisco Zarco, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico

Anabella Fierro and friend.

Along with her considerable talent in the kitchen we also enjoyed the convivial couple’s company as they presented each course to us in their rustic, charming backyard, just ten feet away from the pen — which in addition to 30 Pekin ducks houses a turkey and two geese. On colder evenings, the pair warmly welcome guests to dine in their living room, ornate with Anabella’s collection of European antiques.

Fernabella's Pato del Horno, Francisco Zarco, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico

Pekin Ducks.

The Experience

The meal itself is exceptional. Five courses are served and dishes feature locally-grown and sourced ingredients, de riguere in the Valle. Please note that some of the dishes described here may change based on ingredient availability and guest feedback.

We started with warm crusty bread, procured from a local bakery and served with Anabella’s house-made green and black olive tapenades. The briny, dense flavor of the tapenades – made with locally-grown olives – had us scraping bread at bottom to sop up every delicious bit.

Fernabella's Pato del Horno, Francisco Zarco, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico

Green and black olive tapenade.

Next up was fried queso made with cheese purchased at an artisanal shop in Necua, the local Kumeyaay indigenous settlement behind L.A. Cetto. Cheese lovers will delight in the nutty flavor and the salty umami added vis-à-vis the frying.

Fernabella's Pato del Horno, Francisco Zarco, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico

Fried queso with almonds.

The salad was a refreshing and sweet plate of local spinach, green apples, strawberries, grapes and candied pecans topped with a rich vinaigrette. Like all of the other courses, it was served on off-white rose-petal ringed antique German flatware.

The first surprise was the soup, a yin yang swirl of lively apple and chili Poblano green and rich chili morrón red, topped with crushed walnut. The caldo’s slightly tart, sweet and spicy flavors blend perfectly when the thick purees are stirred. It was the perfect comfort food on a cool November night.

Fernabella's Pato del Horno, Francisco Zarco, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico

Soup of green apple and chili Poblano and chili morrón.

The second surprise was the pork stuffing, recently extracted from the still roasting duck and chopped with cranberries, pine nuts and aromatics in a sweet, but not cloying, duck sauce. The stuffing is dolloped into one of the large accompanying basil leaves, just picked from the couple’s herb garden, and eaten like a “basil taco”.

Fernabella's Pato del Horno, Francisco Zarco, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico

Pork stuffing with basil leaves.

Anabella’s roasted duck with seasoned and perfectly crispy skin is the pièce de résistance. She sears then slow roasts a 2-3-month-old duck for five hours, coating it with a savory rub of 16 secret herbs and spices. The dish is presented whole and served tableside. Anabella carefully ladles the jus and Fernando slices tender morsels and serves. The white meat is moist, and the brown meat done well. Each duck serves 2 diners.

Fernabella's Pato del Horno, Francisco Zarco, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico

Roasted duck.

We finished with a sorbet of red wine topped with jamaica (hibiscus) jam. An excellent ending to an excellent meal!

Ask any Mexican about their favorite place to eat and you’ll hear a similar answer – “At my grandmother’s/mother’s/tia’s home”. If you aren’t fortunate enough to have family to cook for you in the Valle de Guadalupe, Anabella and Fernando’s home is a more than acceptable surrogate.

The cost for the five-course meal is $65/person, with an introductory special of only $55/per person through January 15th, 2019. To make your reservation, contact Fernando Benitez at least 48 hours in advance of your arrival at +52 686-206O-7155 or fernabellas@outlook.com. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/patosalhorno/.

Disclaimer: Fernando and Anabella invited A Gringo in Mexico and his family into their home and served us a wonderful five-course meal, complements of the house. No other compensation was received for the writing or promotion of this article and the author’s opinion remains his own. We would happily repeat the experience on our own peso without hesitation!

1 Comment on The Duck Lady of the Valle de Guadalupe

  1. Wow! I frequented her lovely restaurant when she cooked rabbit. It was a real treat, a very pleasant culinary experience. The rabbit was succulent and dull of flavors that captured Valle de Guadalupes essence! Cant wait to try the duck, well worth the drive from San Diego just to taste her food. She also made the best apple tart in all valle.

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