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Nobody obsesses over peppers like the denizens of New Mexico. Not your uncle who holds the family record for eating jalapeños. Not your buddy who’s a self-professed “chili-head” and boasts shelves lined with hot sauces with punny names in his man cave. Not that lady who just pulled a bottle of hot sauce out of her purse at the restaurant table next to yours. Nobody. First of all, in the Land of Enchantment, peppers are called “chiles.” (“Chili” is that thick spicy soup with beans that may or may not have some meat in it.)
An entire institute is dedicated to the study of chile peppers at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. The Chile Pepper Institute investigates the agricultural, culinary and medicinal aspects of plants in the Capsicum family of peppers—visit to take advantage of guided- or self-guided tours of the Teaching Garden where more than 150 species of chile peppers are cultivated. The Chile Pepper Institute has been instrumental in developing new varieties of chiles including NuMex Big Jim and NuMex Heritage 6-4, peppers which are often lumped together under the name of a nearby region that produces some of the most sought-after chiles in the world: Hatch, New Mexico.
That’s right: There is no one particular variety of pepper named Hatch, though you’ll see that name on bottles, jars and cans of chiles. Instead, the term refers to chiles grown in the Hatch Valley, which stretches north and south along the Rio Grande from the town of Hatch at the southern edge of the valley. The actual peppers, usually described as Hatches, are closely related to what you might call an Anaheim pepper if it were grown in California or a Pueblo chile if it came from Colorado.
Like the difference between a California Fumé Blanc and a French Sauvignon Blanc, it’s the terroir where the chile (or grape) comes from and how it is processed that makes the Hatch chile unique. Both of the aforementioned wines come from the same grape, but they can taste quite different depending on the producer. Chiles grown in the Hatch Valley benefit from the New Mexican soil that they grow in, the altitude, and weather (hot days and cold nights) that combined make a perfect environment for chiles to thrive. The same way that a San Marzano tomato grown in the volcanic soil in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius tastes like no other tomato in the world, the Hatch chile is a distinctively meaty and flavorful pepper, especially when roasted.
While you might see small cans of diced green chiles on the shelves of your local grocery, to ensure you’re getting the real deal, buy from a company that specializes in the distribution of authentic Hatch chiles sourced from local farmers in the valley. Zia Green Chile ships all over the country, both red and green versions of the Hatch chile, the main difference being the amount of time spent on the vine before harvesting that makes the red chiles smokier and better suited for drying and crushing into flakes than their green counterparts.
The absolute best way to experience the glory of Hatch chiles is to visit the quaint town during the annual Hatch Chile Festival over Labor Day weekend. The air is redolent with the aromas of chiles roasting in tumbling steel mesh bins spinning over infernal gas flames. Locals and visitors line up to load up on these beauties picked at the height of ripeness and roasted to bring out the hidden meaty flavors before being sold by the sackful.
Brilliantly colored chiles are strung up in beautiful ristras which are hung outside doorways and windows for good luck and can be used later for cooking with the dried chiles. You can purchase these ristras at the festival or at many of the charming little roasting stands that pop up around Hatch during the weekend. Make sure to schedule time to visit Sparky’s Burgers & BBQ, a local institution decorated with all sorts of delightful roadside kitsch and which serves up some of the best music and undoubtedly the best Green Chile Cheeseburger in the region.
While the festival itself can be hot and dusty (this is the high desert after all), the experience is worth the extra load of laundry just for the chance to celebrate the local heritage with cowboys dancing to live bands, sipping on a cold hot chile-laced beer, and witnessing the annual crowning of the Hatch Chile Queen and her court. A hot time is guaranteed for all!