A basket of green chiles. Along with red chiles (which are simply green chiles allowed to ripen) they give New Mexico food its earthy elemental character.
Northern farmers are known for their "landrace" chiles (a term for plants that evolve to fit their environment). Descended from specimens brought to New Mexico by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, northern chiles tend to be smaller, skinnier, and more twisted than the southern type, and they have square shoulders at the stem end. The flavor is intense, with flowery aromas and varying heat levels.
Meanwhile, southern chiles such as Sandia and NuMex Big Jim are bred for greater yield and consistent flavor, and they're fleshier, smoother, and easier to peel.
"The difference between a Hatch chile and a Chimayo chile is like the difference between a bell pepper and a poblano," says Margaret Campos, who, with mother Eremita, runs Algo Nativo farm on a sliver of land along the Rio Grande near Embudo. "Native New Mexico chiles grow a little crooked. They don't have as much meat, and they don't hold up to commercial peeling. But the flavor!"
Like all green New Mexico chiles, these northern breeds turn bright red when allowed to fully ripen. Since red chiles are usually sold whole, ground into powder, or woven into decorative ristras, they don't need to be peeled, which eliminates the main challenge of cooking with them. When green, the chiles have a sharp freshness; as they ripen, they mellow and deepen in flavor, inspiring even Hatch enthusiasts to head north for red chile.
Eremita Campos and daughter Margaret preach the gospel of northern chiles at their farmstead cooking school, Comida de Campos. You can take classes there on how to make New Mexico foods like tamales. Or you can stock up on their produce at the Pojoaque Valley Farmers' Market.
But even in Chimayo, not everyone is as impassioned. "I think the difference is up here," town native Leona Medina-Tiede says, tapping her head. She's standing at the counter of her eponymous restaurant in a rambling shack next to Chimayo's renowned shrine, El Santuario de Chimayo. Medina-Tiede serves some of the state's best food, but she doesn't seek out local chiles for her stews and sauces. "The chile in the south is bigger and meatier, and the skin slides right off," she says. "My mom used to grow Chimayo chile. There were 11 kids, and we'd run out [of it] in the winter. Then she switched to Hatch chile, and it was just as good."
Back at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, Matt Romero, an affable former chef, touts his solution to the great chile debate: breeding northern chiles with southerns. At Romero Farms, in Dixon, he grows a variety called Alcalde Improved ― landrace chiles from the Española Valley crossed with southern Sandias.
"My chiles have nice, big, thick shoulders," Romero says. "The flavor is incredible, with quite a bit of heat. Describing it is like trying to describe sex. Words are just sometimes not adequate."