Midway into April, the weather was already toasty in this town nestled along the Rio Grande just 60 miles north of Mexico.
But the 80-degree temperature is nothing compared with the heat of late August – and we aren’t talking about the mercury.
Late summer is when the valley’s legendary chiles ripen, and the harvest begins. Varieties such as Big Jim, Sandia, New Mexico 6-4 and Lumbria are picked and trucked to local processing plants.
And chile-heads, more than 20,000 of them, descend on the Labor Day weekend’s Hatch Chile Festival like miracle seekers flocking to Lourdes.
Growers say the chiles are miracles of their own.
”You cannot beat the flavor of our Hatch chile,” said 76-year-old Nick Carson, president of Rio Valley Chili in Rincon. “Why it’s so good is a mystery. My father-in-law used to say it was the minerals in the soil.”
That father-in-law would be Alex Franzoy, who died March 14 at 101, just as chile seeds went into the ground. The Franzoys, with roots in Austria, have farmed here since the late 19th century. They are chile royalty, an extended clan of growers whose names are found on mailboxes across the rural valley, which also produces alfalfa, onions and melons.
Chile farmer Jimmy Lytle of Solar Dry Farms in Salem is part of the family. The community is one of several studding the Hatch Valley. Lytle’s grandfather was the patriarch from Austria. He had 10 children, all farmers. Lytle’s mother, June, 88, is the last alive.
”Everything we grow is New Mexican chile; we don’t grow Anaheims and that other junk,” Lytle said. ”We do fresh chiles. We’re a small operation and do niches others can’t fill.”
On an early April morning, seed was going into his acreage. Lytle looked out over the furrows in his fields.
”New Mexican chile has a better flavor than any on Earth, and the reason Hatch is so good is that everything is right: the water, the climate, and the elevation, which is 4,000 feet,” he said. ”Las Cruces and Deming grow peppers just a few miles away, but they’re not as good.”
Lytle farms 80 to 100 acres of chiles a year, mainly green varieties. His ”small, niche operation” turns out up to 350,000 pounds of peppers annually. ”They’re fire-roasted and hand-peeled,” he said. ”Most growers steam the peppers and run them through a lye bath to remove the skin. Ours is a gourmet product.”
Hatch sits off Interstate 25, and the overpass at the lone exit is marked with stylized red and green chile pods.
It lies 40 miles north of Las Cruces, home of New Mexico State University. That relationship has proved crucial: The school’s agriculture department helps area chile farmers enhance their crops in a lively back and forth between researchers and the folks who till the soil, who are sometimes one and the same.
Example: Lytle’s late father, Jim, developed the acclaimed Big Jim pepper, arguably the backbone of the local chile industry. Lytle and his son, Faron, created the Lumbria and Legacy peppers, the latter a refinement of the Big Jim. They are also major sellers of chile seeds, which like the chile powder they make, are stored in 190-pound barrels.
”I like growing seed more than anything,” Lytle said.
There isn’t much to do in Hatch, though chile shops abound, including Lytle’s Hatch Chile Express on the main road in.
At the Pepper Pot, sisters Melva Aguirre and Rosario Varela serve traditional New Mexican cooking. They’ve run the restaurant 16 years, after a stint working in the chile fields.
A plate of huevos rancheros, slathered “Christmas” style in red and green sauce made from Lytle’s chiles, was revelatory – at once deep, fresh, complex and intense. The pork green chile was smoky; the vivid red sauce kicked.
The Pepper Pot is a locals place. Customers tend to be farmers bantering about the weather and basketball – the state is hoops-crazed – but the restaurant has been written about online, so chile fans make pilgrimages.
Ed and Cindy Haines were making their second trip to the restaurant, stopping in on the way from Michigan to Tucson.
”We just like the taste of the chiles, including the hot part,” Cindy said. ”Everywhere you go, you see Hatch peppers on the menu. It’s nationwide.”
The Hatch billing can be a sore point. “A lot of what’s sold as Hatch isn’t,” Carson said.
Carson’s headquarters is in a vast metal building on the road into Rincon. He deals almost exclusively in chile powder, and has a lab where technicians use optical sensors to test chiles for color. Bright red hues – ”high color,” in chile parlance – are as nearly important as the fruits’ flavor and potency.
The fruits of the farmer’s labor will be displayed Labor Day weekend, when pilgrims arrive for the 41st annual Hatch Chile Festival and the air is aromatic with roasted chiles. The 2012 theme: ”My Bucket List: Hatch Chile Festival.”
”We’ll have Western swing and mariachi music. You can sit and listen or get up and dance,” said festival coordinator Marcia Nordyke. ”And lots of fresh green chile – Hatch only. It’s a great but crazy weekend.”