Mexican food is famous for its inclusion of chile peppers; British food is not. This is why it is particularly fascinating to me that an old high school friend and his partner have made a wonderful business out of growing, promoting, and selling chile peppers in the UK–in Bedforshire, no less, where you are more likely to find a Clanger (rather like a cornish pasty) than Mole. Edible Ornamentals, runs workshops (including one on hydroponic chile growing), does tours (Chile tour to Texas anyone?) and has a tasting kitchen (visited by the likes of Heston Blumenthal). Their core business, however, is the growing and selling of Chile plants–nearly 150 varieties of chile plants. Recently I had the opportunity to add to this collection. What an honour. But I couldn’t have done this without the help of my friend, and Mexico blogger, Cristina Potters (Cristina’s blog is Mexico Cooks).
When Shawn, my high school friend and co-owner of Edible Ornamentals, heard I would be travelling to Mexico for a work trip, he asked me to see what chile peppers I could find so that he might have a go at propagating the seeds. I was meeting Cristina, who had very graciously offered to take me on a tour of some of the markets in Mexico City (see this post for a bit more on that). I told Cristina that Shawn wanted me to collect some unusual Chiles for him so that he and Joanna might try to to grow some new varieties. Cristina immediately said, “What is unusual?”, highlighting the vast differences in understanding that a change in geographical context can inspire. An extensive variety of Chiles are normal in a context like Mexico City, unusual becomes synonymous with more expensive. In a place like the UK, Chiles themselves are unusual. It was a conundrum we thought we could solve quickly on a street corner by messaging Shawn and asking what he already had (a fairly instant process with a smart phone). It was then that Shawn revealed to me that they have a huge number of different varieties of chiles; then he offered some help by indicating more specifically what he might like if we saw it.
As it happens we were able to find the two varieties that Shawn wanted: Cascabel and Pasilla. We also found a chile, called Chilhuacle, that he was not familiar with.
According to Pocket Change Gourmet, Cascabel and Pasilla (Chiaca) Chiles are two of the twelve essential chiles for Mexican cooking. Cascabel, also known as rattle chile because of the sound the seeds make in the dried husk, is a relatively mild chill ranking at the low end of the heat index. Pasilla chiles are a bit hotter, but still on the quiet side. Chilhuacle is about a medium heat chile, traditionally from Oxaca, and used often in Mole, but can also be ground for paprika.
The Chilhuacle chile is also quite expensive as it is considered rare. This rarity is because it is not being farmed as much these days. The decline in availability is due to the local costs of farming and global competition. According to Zocolito (a restaurant in Colorado that loves it Chiles), there are just 7 farmers in Oaxaca still growing this variety. Global competition in mango farming has meant that fewer farmers are producing not just mangos but also these particular chilies. Apparently it was the Oaxacan mango farmers who grew the chiles alongside thier mango crop. Since it has become more difficult for Mexican farmers to remain competitive in the global mango market, the chilies are also disappearing. It will be great if Shawn and Joanna are able to harvest the gold that is inside these chilies I’ve brought back in my suitcase, and grow them, as it keeps the variety alive, even if in a displaced context outside of Mexico. The story of these peppers is at once global and local and illustrates the pitfalls and possibilities inherent in each geographic scale. While global technology and travel enable the mobility of the seeds to new geographic contexts and potential markets, global markets threaten the reproduction of local culture and food ways.
When I returned to the UK, I sent the Chiles to Shawn and Joanna, but I also kept some for myself. I made a fresh tomato salsa with the Cascabel chiles. With the Pasilla I made the very wonderful braised chicken taco’s whose recipe I got from Paper and Salt (Thomas Pynchon Beer Braised Chicken Taco’s)–I even found Mexican Cheese via The Cool Chile Co (who also get fresh chiles from Edible Ornamentals). But with the Chilhuacle peppers I made a tomatillo sauce, more red than green, the citrus flavour of the tomatillo mingling with the medium heat, made a wonderful addition to the tacos. These I served in convivial fashion to some work collegues on saturday alongside some tequila cocktails and Mexican beer. It must have been good because the evening ended at 2 in the morning.
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