Cultivating a Santa Fe Palate
Santa Fe’s love affair with chile is no accident. The spice is ubiquitous here, flavoring the sauces that enrobe the ever-popular enchiladas, chiles rellenos and burritos. From taco carts to haute-cuisine restaurants, chile is the cultural constant that lets you know you’re in Santa Fe.
So popular is this fruit (yes, it’s a fruit) that the New Mexico Legislature long ago established the official state spelling of “chile,” the Spanish version, to differentiate it from the Texas-bred “chili,” which means a bowl of spicy beans.
By mid-August, the first crop of fresh green chile appears in stores, and the supermarkets roll large roasters into their parking lots so patrons can roast their purchases on the spot. The aroma is enough to make the most timid diner crave some spice, and the telltale scent lets you know fall is just around the corner. Later in the season, red chile is harvested. Most native New Mexican cooks have their own family recipe for chile sauce, but if you purchase it fresh and roast it soon after, it’s hard to go wrong.
Ever concerned with codifying the status of this culinary icon, the state legislature has even decreed an official state question: Red or green? You’ll hear this asked at any restaurant where New Mexican food is served, and the most common answer is “Christmas,” or both red and green.
Pinons and blue corn
Chile is king, but there are other foods and flavors that differentiate New Mexican cuisine from its cousins, Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex and Mexican. New Mexicans make tortillas, but they often favor the blue-corn variety, whose grainier, chewier texture holds up well under chile-laced sauces. Another local staple: the piñon nut. During fall, you’ll see pickup trucks and family sedans lining the roads that wind through piñon forests as entire clans collect the highly prized little nuts to sell or eat themselves.
Most people are surprised to learn New Mexico is a prime wine-producing region. The Franciscan monks who accompanied the conquistadors from Spain in the 1500s brought wine grapes to ensure an uninterrupted supply of altar wine and brandy. New Mexico’s long growing season and bright sunlight offered excellent conditions for viticulture, and the winemaking industry flourished until Prohibition, when the vineyards were replaced by cotton fields.
In the 1980s, a handful of French vintners restarted the winemaking industry. Today you’ll find New Mexico wines on the wine lists of fine restaurants in Santa Fe and beyond. There are a handful of small wineries within driving distance of Santa Fe, as well as a number of festivals celebrating the harvest. One of the best, the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, takes place each September at the Santa Fe Opera and features dishes from local chefs matched with wines from all over.
Whether you like your food ultra-spicy or merely mild, once you learn the language of chile, you’re at home in Santa Fe.