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Familia Samarin: Rustic Russian-Mexican Flavor

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The history of the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California is an interesting one, including the early 20th Century settlement of a Russian community, which was granted a substantial amount land in the fertile valley. Although the Mexican government had granted the land to the Russian, later land distribution policies forced the bulk of the Russian community to locate to the United States. However, a remnant of that community lingered on in the valley and it is estimated that a couple hundred of their descendants still live in the area. These Russian descendants have effectively integrated into the local population over the generations, through both intermarriage and assimilation, there are still visible elements of Guadalupe’s Russian heritage to be found.

One such reminder of the region’s Russian heritage is found in the village of Guadalupe, not far off of Highway 3, which runs the length of the valley and connects Ensenada to Tecate in the north. Here you will find the Restaurante Familia Samarin restaurant, owned and operated by descendants of the early Russian immigrants to the area. The restaurant itself features a creatively rustic design and decor and their menu is a creative mix of inherited Russian recipes, intermingled with Mediterranean dishes.

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Like everywhere in the Valle de Guadalupe, of course, there is wine to be had. There are also a variety of site-made artisanal breads and cheeses, as well as an array of sauces, tapanades and other delicacies to enjoy, or purchase to take with you. Aside from the restaurant itself, Restaurante Familia Samarin has a little gourmet boutique, offering savory treats made on site, as well as from local vendors.

The staff may, or may not, speak English, so if you’re not conversant in Spanish, be aware and be prepared. Having said that, my own Spanish is limited, at best, and the language barrier wasn’t much of a hurdle. A few basic Spanish phrases will serve you well in Mexico and, accompanied with a translator on your phone to conjure up the name of things, it’s really not that difficult to get by. I’ll help you out, though, and let you know that conejo is Spanish for rabbit and, if you order it at Restaurante Familia Samarin, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I certainly wasn’t. Of the dishes our party tried, the only complaint would be with the chicken alfredo pasta. Although the dish was a substantial portion and, overall, well seasoned, the sauce was more watery than it should have been, which did detract from the enjoyment. Everything else we ordered was spot on, however, so maybe we just caught them on off day for alfredo sauce.

Adjacent to the restaurant is a small Russian heritage museum, operated by the Samarin family. We took a pass on looking inside, for multiple reasons. Earlier in the day, we’d visited the Bibayoff winery, where we’d seen a number of items and artifacts related to the valley’s Russian heritage. Plus, some of us were getting a little tired and there were still other stops to make. Lastly, according to their sign, the admission to the museum is $25.00 per person. Now, given that we had already decided to press on with our day, I did not clarify with the staff if that was $25 USD or if the price was in pesos. I hope it was in pesos, which seems a little cheap, but if that price was in dollars, I’d be inclined to call it exorbitant. Honestly, as a bit of an armchair anthropologist, I find the story of the Russian-Mexicans to be quite interesting and read a fair amount about their history. If I have time on my next visit, I wouldn’t mind taking a peek inside their little museum so, hopefully, that price is not in US dollars, or I’ll have to take another pass.

Restaurante Familia Samarin is definitely on my list of places to eat if, and when, I return to the Valle de Guadalupe. I have seen and heard good things about their pizza, which they bake in their wood-fired, adobe oven, so maybe I’ll try that. On my next visit, I will need to do a better job at stocking up on their retail products, such as their tapenades. I’ve already kicked myself for not coming home with more of such things in the first place. I’m sure they would be a hit with friends and family, as well as a conversation piece. Just one more reason to go back, though, I suppose…to do a little shopping. And eating. It’s well worth the time for both.

St. Helena Island: the Gullah heartland

In the United States, when we hear the word creole, it probably brings to mind the Louisiana creole culture, with its mix of French of African influences. In fact, my experience has been that most Americans associate the word creole as referring to a derivative of French language and culture. However, that’s not actually the case. Creole languages and cultures are derived from the mixing of several different root languages and cultures, not just French.

In fact, right here in the United States, there is another very old creole culture that is quite distinct from the Franco-Creole of Louisiana. The Gullah culture and language of the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, sometimes known as Geechee, is found primarily in the sea islands and along the coastal region. It is an Anglo-Creole with its own rich history and heritage. It has more in common with the creole cultures of the English-speaking Caribbean (such as Jamaica) and with the Krio culture of Sierra Leone in Africa. For instance, words found in Jamaican Patois, such as oonu, as a plural of “you”, or nyam, meaning eat, can also be found in the Gullah language.

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St. Helena Island, in South Carolina, is often considered the heartland of the Gullah people. At one time, the Gullah culture was prevalent along the coast from Wilmington, North Carolina all the way south to Jacksonville, Florida. Over time, the discernible presence of the Gullah culture has diminished through assimilation with the broader American culture, particularly as the region has become less isolated, both physically speaking, as well as through advancements in mass communication. Still, the Gullah people hang on and St. Helena Island has become a center for the preservation of their heritage.

St. Helena Island is a mostly rural area, but the small, unincorporated town of Frogmore is the commercial center of the community. Here you will find shops, such as Frogmore’s Lowcountry Store and the Red Piano Too Art Gallery. You will find a handful of restaurants in Frogmore, some of which specialize in Lowcountry and Gullah dishes. Local cuisine features familiar fare to fans of Southern cooking, along with traditional Gullah recipes and, of course, seafood is plentiful.  Gullah Grub and the Foolish Frog are popular options and, if you’re headed out to Hunting Island State Park, you can drop by the roadside classic, Shrimp Shack.

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The ancestors of the Gullah people were brought to this region as slaves to work on the rice plantations. During the American Civil War, once Union troops had occupied this region, the slaves were given their freedom. It was not long before efforts were made for the education of the newly freed slaves and the Penn School was established near Frogmore by an abolitionist missionary from Pennsylvania, Laura Matilda Towne. This school remained in operation until 1948, but afterward remained open as the Penn Center.

The Penn Center is, perhaps, the most important attraction today on St. Helena Island. It represents a significant historical and cultural landmark, not only for the Gullah and other African-Americans, but for everyone. The Penn Center continues to offer educational resources, provides conference and meeting spaces, maintains a museum and an art gallery. The grounds are beautiful and peaceful and, in times past, has attracted the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who spent time here during the formative stages of his Civil Rights career.

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Other locations to see around St. Helena Island are the ruins of various churches and plantations, including the Chapel of Ease, Fort Fremont and the Riverside Plantation. There are numerous other similar sites in the area, for those who wish to get outdoors and do some exploring.

From the coastal cuisine, to the local historical legacy, to the rich heritage of the Gullah people, St. Helena Island is a unique destination, offering a laid-back and off the beaten path vibe that you simply won’t find at a more typical beach vacation destination. Whether this is your primary destination, or as a day trip from elsewhere on the coast, it’s worth the effort to get here, to unwind and even to step back in time just a bit.

You can see more photos from St. Helena Island, nearby Hunting Island and the city of Beaufort by visiting our Facebook gallery.

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