It’s early September, and fat, electric-green and red-tinged chiles from the southern parts of our state have arrived en masse, filling barrel roasters in parking lots all around town. There are the $5 and $6 zippered sandwich bags of still-warm charred chiles lining the tables at the farmers market; and 13 bucks buys a lumpy burlap sack full of not-yet-popped “Hatch extra-hots” from the roaster inside the chain-link fencing set up outside Lowe’s supermarket on St. Mike’s.
I buy both kinds of bags—Ziplocs and bushels—but, admittedly, I sort of buy them blindly, certain only that I prefer a mix of “medium” to “extra hot” peppers to freeze and then dole out for enchiladas, burritos, dips, stews and sandwiches throughout the winter. A little asking around reveals that most of my friends, native New Mexicans and newer arrivals alike, do the same thing—buy chiles for their declared heat index instead of their origin or variety—so the buying details below should help us all be more informed chile consumers this season.
Jaye Hawkins, the executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association, an industry advocacy group, tells me that most of the chiles tossed in the roasters around town were likely harvested in and around Hatch or Deming, in the southern part of the state—though increasing numbers of the fat pods are picked in the middle Rio Grande valley around Socorro. “The most important question to ask a roaster before you buy is where his or her chile comes from,” says Hawkins, who confirms that ‘impostor’ peppers from Mexico are on the market, too.
Hawkins also admits that California has now outgrown New Mexico in terms of acres of green chiles harvested, though the Golden State’s peppers are not the same varieties as those favored by New Mexico chile growers; and Hatch, NM, still holds the title of “Chile Capital of the World.” “None of our New Mexico farmers really cultivate on a largescale, like in California,” Hawkins says.
“California chile fields are thousands of acres. New Mexico’s biggest chile growers farm hundreds of acres at most, and in northern New Mexico, 5-10 acres of green chile makes for a ‘big farm.’ Plus, New Mexico’s chiles remain the go-to chiles of connoisseurs,” she continues. Green (and red) chiles distinguish New Mexican cuisine, of course, and our green chiles are apparently in high demand in the Pacific Northwest this year, Hawkins says.
This demand gives the NM Chile Association members hope that our state’s cultivated acreage might soon return to what it was back in its heyday in the 1990s. Before you buy, ask where the chiles were grown. Anywhere in New Mexico is really “top notch,” insists Hawkins, who also points out a common misperception: “Hatch is a place, not a type of chile. When it comes to types of chile, many Santa Fe roasters source from the Socorro area, where the majority of northern New Mexico’s chile is grown.” At the farmers market, proprietary varieties are available.
Romero Farms has sold its “Alcalde Improved” variety for a dozen years, though Matt Romero claims his family has been “improving” the meaty, red-tipped pepper for some 40 years. Perhaps the most popular chile variety on the market is the Big Jim. “Growers love [it] because it’s a large, meaty pepper that is great for relleno-making,” Hawkins notes.
“It’s probably the most widely sold medium-heat variety out there.”