Opinion: it's the season to catch Hatch chile fever

July 11 , 2014

By Frieda’s Specialty Produce CEO Karen Caplan

KarenCaplan_2013 columnWe know it’s July here at Frieda’s when our consumer line starts buzzing with calls asking about when Hatch Chiles will be available. You see, once you’ve tasted the authentic Hatch chile from New Mexico, no other green chile will ever do.

Exclusively grown in the Mesilla Valley near Hatch, New Mexico, Hatch chiles are larger than the common green Anaheim chiles and have a heat level that ranges from mild to extra-hot. The product is well loved by aficionados of spice – also known as ‘Chile Heads” – for their robust flavor and the zesty fragrance released when they’re roasted over an open flame.

In fact, Hatch chiles are so popular that an annual festival is held at the peak of the season every year in their namesake town, with tens of thousands of fans the world over making their pilgrimage to celebrate the unique pepper.

But you don’t have to go that far to get this item, which is heading to stores across the U.S. from August through September.

You will find many supermarkets hosting their own chile-roasting events. Frieda’s partners up with our retail clients, especially in our own local Southern California market, to host these. It’s easy to spot a local roasting because you can smell the mouth-watering aroma of roasting chiles from quite a few blocks away, and see a line of Chile Heads forming outside the store at the crack of dawn to guarantee their supply.

A metal tumbler with propane-fueled, jet-engine-like flames is brought out to roast 25 pounds of chiles at a time. Once the chiles are blistered and well-charred, happy customers take them home and peel off the skin. Then fragrant peppers are ready to be stuffed with cheese for chile rellenos or chopped up for salsas, stews, soups, sauces, chili, tamales, breads, and even apple pies. And the rest can go into the freezer.

That’s right. Another appeal of the roasted Hatch chiles is that they can be frozen for up to one year. Chile Heads will buy an entire 25-pound case, if not more, to stock up their supply during the peak season so they have the delicacy to use year-round.

So what’s behind this fanaticism? It’s the terroir, as the French call it. The word is mostly used to describe the unique taste and flavors in wine, as the geography, geology, and climate of where grapes are grown affect the grapes themselves. It’s the terroir of the Mesilla Valley at an elevation of 4,000 feet that gives Hatch chiles their unique flavor.

But there are green chiles out there parading as authentic Hatch chiles even though they are grown elsewhere, and www.freshfruitportal.com actually touched on this topic last year. The New Mexico Department of Agriculture has been working tirelessly to keep the “New Mexico Chiles” brand true to its name, and to keep Hatch chiles authentically from Hatch.

Much like how champagne can only come from France and bourbon can only come from Kentucky, the New Mexico Chile Advertising Act went into effect in 2012 to ensure that only real New Mexico chiles are used in products with the name, and that they are labeled and advertised properly. FriedasHatchChile2012_Logo

The law makes it illegal for a business to knowingly sell or label products as “New Mexico Chile” if the chile was not grown in New Mexico. For example, any New Mexico variety of chile, such as Hatch or the actual variety that is called “New Mexico”, which were not grown in the state, must be labeled “Not Grown in New Mexico”.

Not only is this law keeping the New Mexico Chile brand from getting diluted, it is crucial to the New Mexico agriculture industry. Chiles are one of the state’s top-selling crops. To lose the business to other states, or even countries, that can grow chiles cheaper and in bigger volume than New Mexico is detrimental to the state’s economy.

Consumers should know that their chiles are the real thing. Dedicated Chile Heads and foodies seek out true, authentic New Mexican chiles and will not settle for products not grown in the state. After all, it’s the terroir of New Mexico, Hatch or otherwise, that makes them special.

Frieda’s is proud to be one of the keepers of Hatch chiles’ authenticity, and we are excited to see returning Chile Heads and new fans at our 2014 roasting events. Hatch chile fever only comes once a year, and now’s the time.


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