Why This New Mexico Chile Has an International Cult Following
The historic village of Chimayó, located in the heart of New Mexico, is approximately a 30-minute drive north of Santa Fe, at the foothills of the crimson-hued Sangre de Cristo mountains. Established at the tail-end of the 17th century by Spanish settlers, this tight-knit community of 3,000 people lies near the Santa Cruz river, and is best known for the Santuario de Chimayó. But the most prized culinary item of the region is its distinctly reddish-orange chile that attracts purveyors from all nooks of the globe. Despite being so well-known, it is grown only in this community in small batches by a group of farmers who harvest the crop each fall, and use the harvest primarily for in dishes for their families.
The chile is grown from original heirloom seeds passed down from generation to generation, so outsiders can't quite hybridize and grow their own version of it. Its intense red color comes from the drying process; the batches that are sold are oven-roasted, which gives the spice its distinctly toasted flavor. Chimayó pods are much smaller in size than a traditional Sandia or Hatch chile (roughly four inches in size), making it more difficult to harvest and process.
But it is the unique flavor of this spice that keeps visitors coming back for more.
“Chimayó chiles tend to be small, a little bit curlicued and thin-walled and because of this, they are harder to harvest,” says Cheryl Alters Jamison, a four-time James Beard Award-winning author. “They tend to be grown in small batches in someone’s backyard,” she says.
Because of the precise growing conditions for these plants—they demand warm days, cool nights and an adequate supply of water—it is rare to find this type of small chile anywhere else in the world. And because of the small harvest batches that tend to sell out almost immediately, Chimayó chile commands a very high price, around $45 per pound.
There has also been a rush of vendors who sell counterfeit versions of it, due to the growing demand. It is therefore important to know where to find the genuine stuff, and what qualities set the real chile apart from the other varieties.
Nicolas Madrid, manager of El Potrero Trading Post, which sells the real deal, says that he has only one farmer who will sell Chimayó chile to him, and he prices it at $45 per pound. “There’s basically not a single restaurant in Santa Fe that can serve Chimayó chile,” he says, referring to its scarcity.
El Potrero is affectionately referred to as the “Vigil Store” and has been a family-run business since 1921. It is adjacent to the Santuario de Chimayó, and also carries folk art, retablos (saints painted on wood) and Hatch chile produced in the eponymous valley in southern New Mexico. (Hatch is considered the chile pepper capital of the world, and this powder typically retails for $6 to $10 per pound).
Madrid says initially the annual production levels of Chimayó chile were once only 30 to 100 pounds, but that number has grown over the years, but he cannot estimate how much is available now because of “a large number of undocumented farmers,” he says.
Kai Autenrieth, head chef at the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado in Santa Fe, says that the Chimayo chile is extremely sun dried due to the aridness of the land and also because the region has at least 250 days of sunshine a year. “The taste is unbelievable as this chile is smokier than other New Mexican varieties, and because of the mountainous land they grow in,” he says.
While Autenrieth doesn’t use that precise chile in his Terra restaurant, several other dishes from the avocado toast with chile oil to the house-made green chile sausage and the sunrise burrito use chile. Over the holidays, his pastry team introduced a spicy and sweet New Mexican hot chocolate that contains a house-made red chile powder, but he would use the Chimayó version if he could.
Chris Beck, who has run The Chile Shop in Santa Fe for over 17 years, says that he has not seen Chimayó chile powder commercially available in years. “It’s a hand-picked crop, and it is hard to make money off something produced in such small quantities,” he says, praising its earthy flavor. “One guy came to my store asking for it but he wasn’t really sure why ... people sometimes don’t know why they’re asking for it.”
Beck noted that grassroots movements like the Native Hispanic Institute, which started the “Chimayo Chile project,” attempted to preserve some of New Mexico’s culture by growing more of the crop using heirloom seeds. Their website guarantees authentic chile and also ships to customers ($20 for 4 oz.).
Some city restaurants, like Café Pasqual’s, listed the chile as a specific ingredient in their first cookbook that came out in 1992, but did not list extensively in the second edition in 2006 because they noticed it was becoming increasingly harder to find. “We use it most soups, or wherever we need a touch of chile spice,” says Katherine Kagel, the restaurant owner. “We do not use it in our classic red chile sauce - but rather as a flavor enhancer.”
“The real Chimayo chile has more of an orange than a red tint,” says Beck. “Because it is truly sun-dried.”