San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer spent time in Santa Fe earlier this month and shared a taste of his visit to the city’s farmer’s market for a green chile cheeseburger smackdown. With harvest behind, bushels of peppers to buy and festivals to look forward to, it’s prime chile season in New Mexico this time of year. Reading about it reminded me of my own trip to the Land of Enchantment a couple of years back, and it served as an incentive to revisit and dish up my own memories.
With the exception of staying a few nights along The Turquoise Trail, Santa Fe served as my home base for the duration of my visit to New Mexico allowing me to take leisurely day trips to nearby places of interest. With the hopes of capturing postcard views, I set my sites on a northeastern town that promised adobes and an opportunity to experience local culture.
Roughly 28 miles heading northeast from Santa Fe along what’s dubbed as the high-desert corridor, I set out to see El Santuario de Chimayóm, an old adobe church that’s visited by thousands of pilgrims each year. Food is always on my mind, but traveling a bit on a whim I hadn’t realized at the time that Chimayó is not only a draw for its church, but it’s also famous for its chiles. I learned this along the way when I stopped at a roadside stand selling green and red heirloom peppers along with locally grown squash.
Harvested in late summer, Chimayó chiles are picked when green, or left longer to ripen on the vine and then picked later in the fall when a lush red. The red dried peppers are strung into chains or wreaths that are called ristras or dried and ground into a chile molido or powder. Though both are from the same plant, the green chiles tend to be fleshier than their red counterparts. The red peppers tend to exhibit a deeper, richer flavor. The founders of the Chimayo Chile Project describe the flavor of these peppers as “chocolaty with more flavor than heat” and “if sunbaked they get an added tang”. Red or green, chiles are synonymous with New Mexico’s cuisine and are incorporated into almost all traditional dishes.
The Chimayó Chile Project grows its chiles using “natural cultivation methods” and is intent on preserving the seeds to pass on to future generations. These heirlooms have a long history, arriving with the Spanish to the New World more than 300 years ago. Similar to wine, “terroir” and uniqueness of place is important to this industry as well as the state goes to great lengths to protect its name affiliated with these premium homegrown peppers.
If you’re curious for more about Chimayó chiles and for a taste, here are a few reads and recipes:
Chimayó’s Chile Culture Saveur
Mrs. Sanchez’s Red Chile Sauce Saveur
Huntley Dent’s Red Chile Sauce Serious Eats
Chimayó-Chile Risotto with Shiitake Mushrooms Food & Wine
While you have chiles on your mind, be sure to checkout East of Eden’s Chili Corn Bread made with Hatch chiles, a variety also grown in New Meixco.