For the past year, I have been anticipating this year's collection trip, as it took me through areas that are known as important habitats for wild chiles. In Mexico, the chiles are distributed along the coastal plains and along the foothills of the 2 major mountain ranges, the Sierra Madre Occidental (west) and the Sierra Madre Oriental (east). In the interior of the country, there are no wild chiles, except for a few found in lower elevation basins (such as in the state of Queretaro - http://chasingchiles.blogspot.com/2006/11/back-on-chase.html). Last year, the collection path followed the western coast of the country and veered into the highlands. This year, I'm starting in the east. In Texas, actually, and will work my way along the eastern seaboard before veering back into the middle.
Over the last 6 days, I have been wandering south Texas and the state of Nuevo Leon in Mexico, which are home to the chile pequin (or chile de monte). I have anticipated your first question - "Chile pequin? I thought you were searching for chiltepin?"
True. This is a great example of the problems that "common" names create for biologists. Botanically, the Sonoran chiltepin that I have been ranting and raving about and this Tex-Mex chile pequin, are the same (at first glance anyways) - C. annuum var. glabriusculum. Due to the different climatic conditions that occurs in different geographic locations, with slightly different modifications to adapt to each. For our purposes, we'll say that chile pequin has slightly elongated fruits and its environs are slightly more humid than that of chiltepin. There also exist quite a few cultural and gastronomic differences between the two. While the indigenous groups in Sonora and Arizona survived the Spanish conquest and today still maintain their own ethnic identities, here in Nuevo Leon, the predominant indigenous group was quickly subdued and their blood and ethnicity melded into the dominant mestizo ethnicity. For the chile pepper, this is manifested in appearances in certain spiritual rituals, as part of religious icons and as part of myths and oral histories in Sonora and Arizona, while there is a distinct absence of this in Southern Texas and in Northeastern Mexico. The culinary differences are also quite great. While the chiltepin is best consumed and commercialized in its dried state, the chile pequin is preferred immature and green, where it is added to salsas or pickled. The myriad of differences are encapsulated in the commercial price for each and in the way it is produced or harvested.
- Chiltepin: Harvested from the wild by hand, each ripe chile picked individually as to not damage the plant. Dry wholesale price in the US - $50 per lb. Wholesale price in Mexico - $300-$500 pesos per kilo, or roughly $13 - $22 US per lb. No (or very little) commercial production.
- Chile pequin: Green fruit is harvested by cutting down the entire plant/branch and then fruit is separated from other plant material at a later time. Mexican wholesale price is $90 pesos per kilo (price in Linares 10/7). Increasingly commercially produced.
Since I've told the story of the chiltepin a few times - let me show some pictures from the chile pequin from Texas and Nuevo Leon to help tell you this story. If you haven't seen this photo widget before, just click on the small version of the picture to have it appear in the frame.
Photo 1. Here is Bill M. aka Texas Chef Bill. He was my guide to Texan chile pequins in San Diego, TX. I've put a link to his blog in the sidebar if you would like to see some authentic Southern Texan cooking.
Photo 2. Chile pequins tend to be found along fences (where birds perch) and under mesquites - this chile is right at the base of the fence post.
Photo 3. That's the one.
Photo 4. This is a close-up of the flower. The long stigma extends away from the immature anthers, in an attempt to minimize self-fertilization. The flower is ready to receive pollen much sooner than it is to disperse pollen from the anthers.
Photo 5. At the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon, there is a large project underway to promote chile pequin production. The sign reads that this is the technology transfer headquarters.
Photo 6. Dr. Horacio Villalón and Ingieniero Soto show us some plants that are ready for sale. Each plant is sold for 5 pesos, of which is re-invested into the project. The infrastructure (irrigation, shade) and the plants represent a buy-in on the producers part.
Photo 7. Here is one of the greenhouses with thousands of seedlings in various stages of development. They hope to have 500,000 plants sold per year as of next January.
Photo 8. Yours truly, tasting the wild product right off the bush. Dr. Villalón shared all of his collection with us, so this trip to the field was just to sightsee.
Photo 9. Here is a less technified commercial operation. Don Jaime simply cleared the land, found all of these chile pequin seedlings and then transplanted them to an area by his house. He has over 600 plants and likes it so much, he's wondering why he even bothered to plant half of his plot to maize.
I think I'll end this one here. More soon, with a Saturday off in Monterrey.