The Hatch Chile
Where to begin about Hatch chiles? Hatch, New Mexico is to chiles as Napa Valley is to wine grapes. Similar to California’s perfect environment for growing grapes, Hatch is uniquely situated for growing a variety of chiles and vegetables. Most of the farmland in Hatch can be found at an elevation of between 4500 and 6000 feet between the Arrey Mountains in the north and the Tonuco Mountains in the south. This exceptional combination of hot days and cold nights combined with well-drained alluvial volcanic soil offers the perfect growing conditions for chiles. Although there are more than sixteen different chiles grown in Hatch, I want to focus on the ones that make this festival so popular and addictive. Nearly all of the chiles can be purchased either in their green stage or the more mature red ripe color stage.
In fact, when you are eating out in New Mexico, one question you frequently get is, “Do you want red or green?” The green is typically a little hotter and has a “citrusy” or “oniony” flavor. The red variety has a ripe, milder and matured flavor, tasting more earthy, fruity, plumb or “raisiny”. Since both are outstanding, from a cook’s point of view I tend to use the green chiles with chicken and pork, and the red chiles with heavy beef or game meats. Although they both taste great with cheese, it really depends on your mood and you can easily substitute one for the other. I have to stress that if you haven’t had the real chiles from Hatch, you are missing out on an incredible experience. There are many businesses outside of Hatch offering Hatch chiles. In fact the Anaheim chile offered at most grocery stores is originally from Hatch. The Anaheim chile is great for what it is, but it’s not even close to what comes out of New Mexico.
Look for these chile varieties when you are in Hatch:
The Sandia Select and NuMex XX hot chile plants offer big yields and uniformity, so those are the most common ones available and most commonly used. These two types have a Scoville heat rating between 5,000-10,000 units. This is plenty hot for most casual cooks and devotees. However, I always look for the rare and hotter varieties of Barker’s Hot, Luci Fairy and XX Hot, which can reach upwards of 60k-70k Scoville units. I use the Luci Fairy and XX Hot to make my own hot sauce at home, and the dried Barker’s Hot, Sandia and Big Jim to make homemade chili powder, among other things. There too many uses to write about here, but try them wherever you see a recipe calling for hot pepper.
Why are they so addictive and why do people hoard and crave them? Well, speaking from personal experience, the hotter the chile the greater the euphoric affect you will get during and after eating them. These chiles give you a rush of endorphins while the taste of the roasted chiles themselves are far more superior to what you get anywhere else. The flavor is much more concentrated and pronounced.
The two-day festival in Hatch is held every Labor Day weekend. Expect the temperatures to be hot that time of year (90-95) and dress accordingly. The small town itself suffers from being overwhelmed during the festival. The festival is just like any other small agricultural town’s county fair with arts and crafts, local food vendors, inflatable bounce houses for kids, dance hall, beer hall…the usual suspects. There are vendors roasting chiles when you enter the city off I-10 and they are usually far less crowded than the ones at the festival. The prices at the festival are fixed; so don’t try to haggle for a little extra.
Chiles can be found for sale by the pound, half sack or full sack (30-40lbs). Normally, I would say that half a sack is usually sufficient for this sort of thing, but I have run out over the winter, since I feature them heavily in my entertaining menus over the course of the season. Roasted chiles can also spoil if not properly cared for while in transport. I keep mine in a well-insulated cooler with fresh ice daily while driving back home. Fresh chiles, like those in the form of wreaths and ristra’s, need to be dried properly or they will rot soon after reaching home. You can purchase dried chiles just about anywhere in Hatch in a variety of shapes and finishes. If you plan to use them for decorative purposes, you need to inform the vendor or ask if you aren’t sure. They spray the decorative hanging chilies with a preservative not suitable for consumption.
Where to Stay
Accommodation is sparse in Hatch and fills up quickly. Look to a slightly larger town about 35 minutes north called Truth or Consequences. Truth or Consequences, formerly known as Hot Springs, takes its name from a TV show in the 1950’s, and historically this is where Geronimo would retreat for rest and relaxation. In fact, there is evidence that Native Americans had been making use of these hot springs for hundreds of years. There are seven hot spring hotels/resorts in the town offering a great place to bed down and soak your aches and pains away.
Where to Eat
If you are going to eat in Hatch during the festival, be prepared to wait literally hours for the most popular restaurants. Hatch does its best to feed the hungry hoards, but they have a little trouble coping with their success. Eating in Hatch’s restaurants should be reserved for when you visit outside of the festival period. There is plenty carnival food available at the fair grounds, but look for alternatives to the restaurants in Hatch before you arrive. Additionally, most places in Hatch do not serve beer, wine or alcohol, so be prepared to have a non-alcoholic beverage with your food. On a hot day, I would have killed for a couple of Dos Equis Amber’s to go with my Green XXChile Cheeseburger.
The Hatch Chile Festival is a great place to visit if you want to get a sense a community that celebrates everything about the Hatch Chile…from the volunteers who help park cars, to the tables selling hot sauce, pottery, art, and the ristra making workshops. The town is very small with only around 1,600 locals, and swells to accommodate the influx of people (over 30,000 visitors, according to the website), so expect delays, lines, and long walks from the dusty parking area to the fairgrounds. There are food vendors, and options for meals in the town, but again, the lines will be long and if you are craving a cold beer, you may have to wait until you get back to your hotel room. That said, the chiles themselves are some of the best I’ve ever had and are a pleasure to cook with. Whenever I travel through New Mexico, I stock up then freeze them for use in cooking throughout the year. The chiles can be found in some stores (usually frozen), so make sure they are labeled “Hatch Chile’s” before you buy them, otherwise you may be getting an imposter.