Why You Should Try This King of New Mexico Chile Peppers

By Henry Shukman, "The Chile That Saved Chimayó," September/October 2010

Taste these 7 chile spiced recipes and discover why the Chimayó chile is considered sacred in New Mexico.

Yet, in spite of its fame, the Chimayó chile—a particular strain of chile that may have been brought here by Spaniards in the 1500s— almost became extinct a few years ago. Only three farmers could still be bothered to sort out its seeds from the other varieties they grew, and because it’s smaller and harder to process, even they were about to give up. On top of that, a large chile-farming agribusiness further south in the state had been labeling its product “Chimayó Chile” for years, even though it was neither the Chimayó variety nor grown near the town of Chimayó.

After a long battle, with a good deal of corporate foul play thrown in, the Chimayó Chile Project, a consortium of local farmers and activists, finally succeeded in passing legislation so that only actual Chimayó peppers could be labeled as such. Today, more than 56 farmers are part of the project. Most of them farm organically, and some even use mules to plow their small fields. “Chencho”—or Crescencio Ochoa—a burly, handsome man who farms alone, says that mules are easier to use in the small acreage he tends (around six acres), and that they don’t pack the earth so hard, so the seeds and seedlings are easier to plant by hand. And all chile farming here is done by hand: farmers carefully pushing each seed down with their fingers and one by one opening up sluices that bring precisely monitored amounts of water down the furrows from irrigation ditches fed by a mountain river.

The current president of Chimayó Chile Farmers, Inc., Ross Martinez, a pillar of the local community, is an imposing, soft-spoken man with a splendid mane of silver hair. Like many involved in the project to save the chile, he credits the crop with also saving the once-shattered community here. For decades, the holy town was a hub for heroin distribution. People here talk of a generation lost to trafficking. But now as more and more people are plowing up their yards to resume the long-disrupted chile cultivation, it is once again binding the local community. Today, just four ounces of Chimayó chile powder can go for $20. Edward Medina, from a family that has been growing chile for over 400 years, explains why: “It’s a difficult chile to process. It’s small and its flesh is thin, so when you peel it, the flesh tends to come away with the skin. It’s tedious work. But well worth it for the taste.”

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