Much as a wine forges its flavor against the hardships and through the abundances of its environment, the flavor of a chile pepper is a reflection of the conditions in which it was grown. The chile’s expressiveness of terroir has resulted in the wide and varying array of peppers available today.
The Chimayó Chile is one of several cultivars of the New Mexican Chile, The species capsicum annuum, which includes bell pepper, jalapeño and cayenne, originated in southern North America and northern South America, and has been cultivated for centuries. Chiles made their way to New Mexico around 1600, carried north by Spanish conquistadors and widely disseminated among settlers and pueblos in the area. In the centuries that followed, chile seed strains were cultivated in localized patches, developing particular strains and flavor, and frequently named after the towns in which they were developed, as is the case with the Chimayó chile.
Chimayó, New Mexico, is located at 6,000′ of elevation along the Santa Cruz river, which flows down from the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and into the Rio Grande. Like much of New Mexico, the climate in Chimayó is arid, with less than a foot of rainfall each year. The survival and character of its chile crops depends on the timing of that unpredictable rain, the flux of hot sunny days and cold nights, and the flaky red soil that is characteristic to the region.
Much as grapes forge their flavor against the hardships and with the abundances of their unique environment, the flavor of a chile pepper is a reflection of the conditions in which it was grown. The chile’s expressiveness of terroir has resulted in a wide and varying array of peppers available today. The Chimayó chile is sought after for its signature combination of spice and sweetness that is rare in chiles, accentuated by a deep richness that some describe as smoky. It is typically about 6 inches long with crinkly skin. The flavor and heat is generally rated 4000-6000 on the Scoville scale—just a bit higher than jalapeños though this, too, will depend on environment and growing conditions. The chile can be eaten fresh (either red or green), dried whole, or ground into a coarse powder that provides a base for regional sauces and other dishes.
The unique flavor of the Chimayó puts the chile in high demand, but the great majority of native New Mexican chiles are beloved and consumed locally, and Chimayó chiles can be difficult to obtain outside the Land of Enchantment. Supply of the dried and preserved chile is limited by its small size and resistance to uniformity, which makes peeling and drying the Chimayó laborious. Their demand is further boosted by a flow of tourism to the town of Chimayó, drawn by El Santuario de Chimayó. The sanctuary is a National Historic Landmark and draws nearly 300,000 visitors annually, increasing the fame of the Chimayó along with the scarcity of its namesake chile.
SOWING AND GROWING
See your seed packet for planting instructions!
Best practices and timing for planting any variety will depend on your growing zone and last frost dates. Put your zip code into the Farmer’s Almanac Planting Calendar to see expected last frost dates for where you live and helpful notes about planting indoors/outdoors, and when to do which one!