Chile is chile, right? As anybody who has lived in New Mexico for any length of time can tell you, that’s a trick question. All chile is not created equally. Nowhere will you find that truer than New Mexico. To begin with, the state fruit is the chile, the official question is “red or green?” and soon the smell of them roasting may soon become our state aroma.
In a 2021 Albuquerque Journal article, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham stated, “It is synonymous with who we are as New Mexicans. This is a reflection of our culture, and how we view ourselves. It is embedded even in our basic traditions.”
With all that official acknowledgment at play, it seems somehow odd that even within the state, there are differences between plants and pods. Very specific differences.
Southern New Mexico has the distinction of being the home to Hatch Chile®, so named for the tiny village of Hatch, where the fruit is king. It has become the focal point for one of the most successful agriculture marketing campaigns in the country and reaps the rewards of such classification worldwide. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only form of the fruit in the state of New Mexico. Far from it.
According to the Chile Pepper Institute, housed at New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Las Cruces, there are around 100 different cultivars of green chile. The growers of the region attribute Hatch’s superiority to two things: proximity to the Rio Grande River, and plenty of sunshine. The longer growing season in the southern part of the state allows growers to plant earlier than those in the north. Add to that a statewide push for recognition, not to mention more than a hundred years of selective breeding, and an industry standard is born.
There are different regions that grow it throughout the state, but none have the heavy-hitting status of the mighty Hatch Chile®. Still, all this talk about green chile just begins to scratch the surface. When it comes to New Mexico chile, it’s all about the flavor. To achieve the smokey taste many prefer, green chiles are allowed to ripen before picking. You would think that this would be the final word in red or green favoritism, but it’s actually a lot more complicated than that.
Northern New Mexico Chile
In Northern New Mexico, a completely different type of chile is grown — an older, and some say hardier chile, that’s much harder to come by. Like California wines, most of the chiles grown here are regional, and thus below the radar of all but the most knowledgeable connoisseurs. These heritage varieties proliferate throughout Northern New Mexico.
According to the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at NMSU, in the northern part of the state, many Native American Pueblo and Hispanic communities grow what they call “native chile,” or landraces, the term for a line of plants that have adapted to a certain geographical area, due to more than 400 years of selection and seed gathering. These seeds are passed on from generation to generation. Among the most recognizable New Mexico landraces is Chimayó, grown in the small village of the same name.
Like Chimayó chile, many of the other New Mexico landrace chiles are associated with different communities throughout the region. Among them are Alcalde, Casados Native, Cochiti Pueblo, Escondida, Estaceno, Hernandez, Isleta Pueblo, Jarales, Jemez Pueblo, Nambe Pueblo, San Felipe Pueblo, San Juan Pueblo, Santo Domingo Pueblo, Tesuque Pueblo, Velarde, and Zia Pueblo. These tend to be smaller, sweeter, and some say hotter, though finding them can be difficult, as they don’t tend to be offered in restaurant settings.
Tasting the Tradition
These differences are credited to Northern New Mexico’s high altitude, desert climate, and rocky soil, which in turn are responsible for the distinct flavors. To continue the wine analogy, chile researchers borrow the term terroir, which is used to classify the characteristic taste of a crop based on the environment in which it is produced. Like many wine connoisseurs, some chile lovers can pinpoint exactly where it was grown, based on flavor alone. New Mexico True’s campaign slogan, “Taste the Tradition,” incorporated the fruit too!
Those interested in acquainting themselves with the differences to be found among New Mexico’s northern landrace chiles can do so by visiting any of the weekend farmers markets in Santa Fe, Española, and Taos. Or take a drive along one of the many roadways connecting the small towns and villages of the region. You are almost certain to find a roadside stand, run by those who actually grow the crops. Here you’ll get the education — and chiles — you crave, and maybe even discover flavors your tastebuds never even knew existed.
Can You Grow Your Own Chile?
Want to try your hand at growing your own? The Chile Pepper Institute’s online store features 107 types, from popular varieties of green chile like Nu-Mex Big Jim and New Mexico 6-4 to some of the world’s hottest peppers, including the Bhut Jalokia and the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion. Or try growing a specialty variety like the Chimayó chile. If you visit the institute in person during the summer and fall growing seasons, you can check out the Amy Goldman Fowler Teaching Garden where you can find more than 150 varieties.
The Bottom Line
While Hatch has captured the world’s imagination when it comes to this traditional fruit, you can discover a wide range of specialty ones around the northern part of New Mexico. Come fall, take a road trip, and find your favorite chile at a farmers’ market or roadside stand along the way.