While no one would ever mistake the climate in the Seattle area for Mexico or the Southwest, or eastern Washington even, King County Master Gardeners are intent on proving that chiles can grow quite successfully in our climate. True, they will never develop the legendary heat of Hatch chiles, but it is possible for our gardens to produce more than just bell peppers. No doubt, our unprecedented run of warm, dry weather was responsible for a surprisingly robust crop. I was struck by the variety that was growing in the Bellevue Demonstration Garden. These were just a few varieties.
As we neared Las Cruces, the Mesilla valley came into view. Here is where the famous Hatch chiles are grown. No journey along I-25 in this area would be complete without a stopover at the “chile capital of the world.” The Hatch chiles are prized for their flavor and heat, a pronouncement that many New Mexicans will defend over what are known as Anaheim chiles elsewhere.
In my trip planning a few months ago, all indications were that the chile harvest would be done by the time we were in the area. So, we made no specific plan to stop here. But, we decided to at the last minute. We were so glad we did because some chile roasting was still in progress while many local stands were assembling colorful ristras.
When we arrived in Hatch, Gilly’s New Mexican Chile Company was the first stand we come upon outside of town. Chile fields lay just to the east. Roasters were still in operation and the divine smell of roasted chiles permeated the air here and in town. You can’t help but be drawn in by the charismatic Gilly, who will talk to you about chiles and the products he makes from them—ristras, dried and ground chiles, salsas, and red enchilada sauce—and will call you Rufus and Penelope, regardless of your actual names. His salsas pack lots of flavor and varying amounts of heat, depending on the cultivar.
Almost all the red chiles in Hatch are dried in the sun on metal roofs. The process takes about three weeks, give or take, depending on rainfall. Other chiles are roasted over an open flame in rotating wire cages, releasing a distinctive chile aroma and particulates that permeate the air. Chile workers frequently get irritated lungs from breathing the fumes. There are several chile operations along I-185 and I-154.