As we pulled through the gate to Felix’s house I couldn’t help wondering what his wife was fixing us for dinner. After all, we had arrived in Cuicatlan barely 24 hours ago and only met Felix early this morning. Now, after spending eight hours with him in his fields, where he was growing the most beautiful chilhuacle chiles I’d ever seen, Felix didn’t hesitate to invite perfect strangers into his home. We piled out of Roberto’s Suburban very hungry– it was 3 p.m., and we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Then it hit me. The aroma pouring out of the kitchen meant one thing: mole negro!
Fifteen years ago, Cuicatlan, a small town to the northeast of Oaxaca City, was considered the land of mangoes. The chiles, presumably brought to the region by the Aztecs, flourished due to the revenue that the farmers made from the mango sales. The chilhuacle and chilcolse chiles, irreplaceable ingredients in authentic moles, are easily the most expensive and coveted peppers anywhere and particularly here in Oaxaca, the so-called “land of seven moles”. The genetic erosion of these chiles started in the 1990s, when other countries began flooding the world market with mangoes. Profits from Mexican mango sales slumped, and one result was that the money that the farmers were using to nuture their rare chilhuacle chiles dried up. There were now only seven farmers growing these peppers and only one farmer growing the small variety of the chilhuacle, the achilito, that I coveted most for my cooking at Zocalito. Felix Martinez was that farmer.
As we soon learned, our presence in this small community and what we were doing here had spread like wildfire. Photographer Chris Guibert and I had been here almost exactly a year ago and spent most of our time with another grower documenting the devastating rains that had destroyed almost all the chile fields. This visit we intended to get to the bottom of how many farmers were growing these chiles and who were they. As we arrived in Cuicatlan, Roberto Gavidia, our trusted guide, began his usual routine, in his very diplomatic manner, asking anyone and everyone if they knew any of the farmers growing these chiles. We ran into Aaron, a relative of the farmer we had met last year, who escorted us to an overlook above the campo (the farmers’ fields). He pointed out each and every field where the chiles were being grown and by whom, then sent us on our way. As we headed down the hill from the overlook, it was early afternoon and apparent that most of the farmers had gone home for the day, except for Leopold, the foreman for a grower named Rubin Ahuizotl. Roberto proceeded to verify everything that Aaron had told us earlier and within minutes had Rubin on the phone from Mexico City and had arranged a meeting with him for later in the week. Leopold then showed us Rubin’s fields of chilhuacles, which were planted among mango trees, as well as some of the neighboring fields owned by Felix Martinez. We left the campo feeling very satisfied with our progress and went off to get a bite to eat.
We woke up with the chickens the next day and headed back to the campo looking to meet Felix. Leopold said he should be in his field early because he had started picking his chiles. Sure enough, Felix had expected our arrival and was waiting for us. As Felix began to tour us around his fields, it was obvious that he had the best looking chiles in all of Cuicatlan. Felix demonstrated the superiority of his growing techniques, such as planting rows of chiles between rows of lime trees to insure protection from the elements and help the soil retain water. The discussion of a possible alliance blossomed as we strolled to a ridge on his land where he dried his chiles. We talked about the vendors at the sprawling Abastos market in Oaxaca City, who sold the prized chiles from the Cuicatlan area and how it would be nice to avoid these middlemen. We were walking back to the Suburban, talking about the hardships of the year before and difficulties of farming chiles in general, when Felix asked me if we had time to come to his house for dinner, explaining that his wife had prepared something special for us. I waited a polite half-second before telling Felix we’d be there come hell or high water, then turned to look for Chris, knowing very well that he wasn’t going to be anywhere in sight. Our game plan is always the same: I meet the people, develop the relationship and get the information, while Chris gets the images. My stomach growling, I headed off to find Chris, completely excited to have someone cooking for me, instead of the other way around.
Entering Felix’s home, we were warmly greeted by his father, wife and three children. Chris immediately pulled out his camera gear, just in time to catch the chicken in mole negro get its final touches and the family greeting the man of the house as he arrived home. The aroma was familiar to me, yet different from the mole negro that most chefs serve; the overwhelming smell of the negro chilhuacle was heavy in the air. Most mole negros are made with a combination of chiles and the smallest percentage is usually the negro chilhuacle, purely due to the expense of the chile. But not true of this mole and definitely not true of my mole. My goal with regard to moles has always been to feature the chile that was meant to be tasted and not some more economical mixture. Obviously Felix’s wife felt the same; her mole was amazing, complex and truly showcasing the negro chilhuacle. For sure, having a surplus of any chiles she wanted to work with was the key. As we ate, a possible alliance with Felix fell into the true definition of a Mexican minute, relationship first and everything else second. Or in this case, seconds on the mole.
Photos by Chris Guibert