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In Search of the Elusive Oaxacan Pepper

oaxaca chile huntIn Search of the Elusive Oaxacan Pepper – by Michael Beary
Chef/Owner Zocalito Restaurant Aspen

We parked the Suburban on the side of the rutted dirt road and plunged into the dense Oaxacan jungle on foot. Down one trail we went, crossing others, trying to keep our guide, Macedonio, in view, looking back to see if we’ve lost rest of the group and trying to remember the way back in case Macedonia didn’t return with us. At that moment it occurred to me that this remote countryside was where leopards still prowled, in a region neither the Aztecs nor the Conquistadors could conquer. Just how far was I willing to go to find some peppers?

A few weeks earlier, in late October, I had been sitting at my computer back home in Aspen, trying to get some reliable information about the Mixe region of Oaxaca, Mexico. My goal was the farms that produce one the world’s most delicious (not to mention expensive) chiles, the pasilla de Oaxaca, also know as the pasilla Mixe, and the research wasn’t going well. I kept staring at topographical maps, comparing them to Google maps, and asking myself if my friend, Roberto’s Chevy Suburban could possibly navigate those twisty mountain roads where we’d heard the farms were hidden.

I’d already spent days on the phone, listening as the vendors of the pepper at the largest market in Oaxaca City tried their best to scare me from going out into the countryside. They told stories of a rain of bullets, muggings, robbery and leaving in a coffin. Horticultural pepper experts in Oaxaca City told me to go within 40 miles of the Pacific coast (wrong!).

Still, I was determined to find the pasilla Mixe farms in the heart of the Sierra Madres. First of all, the true pasilla de Oaxaca have the same finger print, which is all the farmers of Atitlan, smoke them in a communal oven that they rent, giving them that signature flavor. As for any potential danger, deep down I knew I was being lied to about the Mixe people. Everything I had ever read described them as very peaceful, true to their community and deeply ingrained in their ways, but hard to communicate with due to their prehispanic language, also called Mixe (it’s pronounced mee-hay).

The good news was that while Roberto Gavidia, my friend and trusted driver/guide/interpreter, who lives in Oaxaca, was hearing the same scary stories every time I suggested another source for him to contact, those sources kept pointing him in the general direction of Ayutla, a town about 60 miles east of Oaxaca City. Specifically, they mentioned a remote village called Atitlan. That did it. I started packing.

A few weeks later, in early November, Roberto and I and some  intrepid friends drive our Suburban into Ayutla and head directly to the Hotel Tek. We are looking for the owners, Celio and Constantia, who seem to be our only hope for reliable information about exactly where to find pepper farmers. But before we talk business, there is food: a delicious stuffed trout that they raise in ponds around the hotel. What a great inspiration for my menu…who would have thought we’d be savoring fat, juicy trout in Mexico?

The next morning we head off to Atitlan to find a pasilla Mixe farmer that Celio had met as the farmer made his way through Ayutla. What an absolutely beautiful drive! Up and over a 9,300-foot pass and down into Atitlan we roll, although it takes the better part of four hours. Coming into Atitlan, we start asking people along the road for directions to the farmer’s house, which is supposedly across the valley from Atitlan. After traveling for about another hour, running out of food and water, and knowing there is no hotel in Atitlan, I start wondering if this is the wisest course of action. It’s late in the afternoon and we we’re completely discouraged.

pasialla chili farmerI decide we needed to retreat down towards a little town where there’s sure to be food, water and maybe bigger chilies. As we approach this town, we start our usual routine, which is to ask everyone we see about pasilla mixe farmers. The first person we come upon is a stocky guy with salt and pepper hair wearing a white t-shirt and a backpack. His name is Macedonio, and he immediately tells us that our arrival must be fate, because he’s heading to his pasilla farm now and chose to take the road instead of the usual jungle trails. Oh, and his farm is only ten minutes back up the road. Who needs food and water?

As Macedonio climbs into the Suburban, we turn around and head back up the road about five miles. I can’t help but wonder where this guy is leading us. Can it possibly be much more than half a dozen scraggly pasilla plants growing on the side of a hill steeper than Highlands Bowl?

We plunge through the jungle, seriously concerned about ever finding our way back to the car. And then suddenly the terrain levels off and we come into a clearing. And not just any clearing: it’s Macedonia’s farm, easily a couple of hundred yards square. I have to pinch myself. How is this possible out here in this remote jungle? Before me are carefully-aligned rows of pasilla mixe peppers, each plant exactly 20 to 30 cm apart, with a drip-fed irrigation system for each row! Turns out that this is a state of the art farm that Macedonio and an engineer friend have created. The entire plantation is bordered by marigolds, which are a natural way to fight insects. Why didn’t they just build a green house over the top it all while they were at it?

growing chiles in mexicoAs we return to the Suburban to swap phone numbers and email addresses (yes, they’re connected to the internet), I can’t believe what has just happened. After weeks of research, endless phone calls, and dire warnings not to even venture into the area, we had been on the verge of leaving with absolutely nothing–no leads, no farms and no farmers. Then, by sheer dumb luck, we stumble onto the pasilla farm of our dreams. There’s a moral in here somewhere, but I’m not sure what it is. Meanwhile, we shake hands with Macedonio and tell him we’ll be back when he harvests his peppers in early April.

-Michael Beary

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