As a purely culinary experience, this may not be the perfect event. I have had better paella in Spain and my wife makes great paella. This is however, year after year, a perfect event.
Maybe I shouldn’t say anything about this event. Tickets to the public are limited and sell out quickly, with most tickets doled out to wine makers and others involved in food, wine and those otherwise well connected. I am going to make a wild, unprofessional guess that 2000 or so people get in to this event. It is comfortably crowded, but not over sold. The week before this year’s event, 300 people were on a waiting list to get tickets. There is usually a good sized crowd at the gates trying to buy tickets. I have been privileged to attend for seven years in a row.
As the last event in the multi-week Vendimia, the Concurso de Paellas, or paella cooking contest, is a peak event in the Baja California Norte wine celebration. There are usually about 80 paella teams contesting awards. Several wineries (about 15 to 20) are represented, pouring free samples of at least a few of their offerings and selling a wider selection. Throw in a live music, a few cigar booths, local pastries, paletas, iced coffees and a local Lincoln Mercury dealer promoting big cars (gas is still about $2.70 a gallon in Mexico) and you have the basic ingredients for a party.
Back to the food. Most people bring some sort of pre-paella foods; fruit, salads, cheeses and crunchy bags of fried junk food. The event is held in an area ringed with large oak trees with tables and chairs beneath the shade. Some of the wineries offer a little food to accompany their wine. Vinos Pijoan offered local cheese (which is fantastic), rustic bread and a sun-dried tomato spread. Another winery had bread and smoked ahi.
It is fun to walk around as the teams, some from restaurants, hotels, paella clubs or just friends and families, prepare the fires and ready their ingredients. The smoke from the fires mixes with the smell of peppers, onions... you get the picture. Ensenada is a great seafood town but a few of the paella teams make rustic or country style dishes. Shrimp, lobster, clams, etcetera, rule the day.
Next, the judges make the rounds. Finally, in the early afternoon, the competitors serve the paella in a staggered manner, with several groups offering their creations in 15 minute intervals. I have never been able to eat more than five or six different versions before stopping. Eventually, I am always reduced to walking around to look at the 75 booths I am can't eat.
As the day goes on, first to the beat of banda sinaloense, later to classic American rock and finally, rock en español, the infield fills with progressively satiated and, to varying degrees, pleasantly inebriated people. But this isn’t an adults-only, snooty affair. The babies are in strollers or in someone’s arms, the little kids are running and playing, the ‘tweens are looking a little bored, the teens are checking each other out and everyone including abuelo and abuela are having a good time. There is a sense of joy and great pride amongst the participants and BCN residents.
The Concurso de Paellas, as well as other Vendimia events, are best when combined with taking a day or two extra to visit wineries, eat at some of the restaurants, great as well as humble, in San Antonio de las Minas (BBQ lamb tacos anyone?), Valle de Guadalupe and Ensenada.
Even the drive back home to Alta California is along the mostly beautiful coast highway. If you get hungry again, there are great places in Tijuana to stop and if you need more wine, there is always the L.A. Cetto tasting room, also in Tijuana.
I will attempt to attach a few photos from the paella contest. Enjoy.