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Chimayo Chile Project

An heirloom chile makes a comeback, thanks to Marie Pilar Campos.

Marie Pilar Campos with bowl of Chimayo chiles
Photo caption
Chimayo chiles line a bowl— and fill Marie Pilar Campos, president of the Native Hispanic Institute, with pride.

Chimayo, N.M., known for the old adobe church visited by thousands of pilgrims each year, is also famous for its chiles. They're ground for use in local dishes and until recently were nearly extinct. In 2005 Marie Pilar Campos, president of the Native Hispanic Institute in nearby Santa Fe, launched the Chimayo Chile Project.

Q Chimayo chile?
A It's a distinct type of hot pepper, Capsicum annuum ‘Chimayo.' It became popular when the santuario was built in 1816, but it traces back at least 300 years.

Q What's it mean that it was declared a "Northern New Mexico heirloom"?
A That it's an inheritance to preserve. By 2002, only five elders still grew the chiles, mostly for their families. Seed had dwindled. Now a quasi cooperative of about 50 growers is mentoring young people. Our co-op buys the ground red chile, packages it, and markets it.

Q What happens next?
A We hope the industry becomes part of our future. It's already happening. Fields that were fallow for years are now planted with chiles.

Q How do they taste?
A Chocolaty—more flavor than heat. It also depends how the chiles are dried. Air-dried in the traditional way on long strings, they're medium hot. They get an added tang when sunbaked on screens.

Q Where are they sold?
A At shops in Chimayo and on our Web site, At vendors' stands too, but be careful to ask for real Chimayos. The chile should be flowerpot orange, not brick red. Buy green chiles fresh at farmers' roadside stands around here.

Photography by Daniel Nadelbach

This article was first published in November 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.