This spring’s trip to Oaxaca, particularly to the Mixe region, was one that had a lot of expectations riding on the ground work that I had laid prior to my arrival on the 12th of April. I had established an ongoing relationship with a young engineer, Julian, who was actually the owner (along with his father) of the field we had visited last December with Macedonio. I had encouraged Julian to get his documents in place with the Mexican Government so I could start importing directly from him. I also arranged for him to give me a full demonstration of the highly secretive world of cultivating and processing of the pasilla Mixe chile. Too my knowledge, this is in fact the first time it’s ever been documented and photographed.
I had arranged to meet Julian the very next morning at 9:30am, at a crossroad about 2 ½ hours from Oaxaca City. Roberto, running a bit late after getting his sons off to school, picked up Chris and me at 7:30. We also tossed on board Roberto’s Suburban a lot of gear, as we were planning on visiting other remote villages in the region for the next few days. Roberto hurried the Suburban up the meeting point, which turned out be at the bottom of an incredibly winding, steep descent, on a road that eventually lead to Estancia de Morelos. Happily, there was Julian and his friend waiting patiently for us. After a quick greeting, back into the Suburban to follow them to field, where Julian shows us the picking process and cutting back of the chile plant. Only one problem: the Suburban now has no brakes. They have overheated on the steep descent, with all of the weight of the gear and passengers, and now they won’t work. Not surprisingly, Roberto is a bit unnerved.
Having rebuilt cars in the past, I know that after we pause for a bite to eat, the brakes will cool down and be ready to go deeper into the Sierra Mixe mountains. Roberto isn’t so sure; after all this is the first time this has happened to him, as most clients aren’t asking him to drive them to the most remote corners of Oaxaca. We creep down into Estancia de Morelos and beyond to the road leading to the Julian’s field.
At the intersection, we all pile into the back of Julian’s truck for the last extremely steep quarter mile to the field. It is just as we left it six months before, the only difference being the bottom third of the field has been left unpicked and uncut for us to see and photograph. Some of the chile plants are almost five feet tall and bent over due to their size. Julian and Max begin to pick the biggest red and green chiles as Chris goes to work shooting close to 300 images before we leave the field.
As Julian is picking, I once again begin firing questions. I had begun my interrogation at breakfast, but was immediately asked by Julian to wait until we were out of earshot of suspicious locals. Now, obliviously, my first question is why didn’t someone (the town leaders/city counsel) want Julian to talk about this process with foreigners? He quickly explains their fear that someone could steal the process that had been around for hundreds of years. Julian, being young, understands that I am here to document this intriguing process and begin direct relations with him, the farmer, instead of all the middlemen that stand between his field and the Abastos market back in Oaxaca City. Then I’ll go back to cooking at Zocalito, not growing my own pasillas.
Soon enough, Julian begins to explain the market/production dynamics of the pasilla Mixe chile. Most of them, he says, are sold fresh to the surrounding villages due to the price they fetch compared to the dried chiles, which loose close to 70% of their weight in the drying process. The field has been picked seven times since I was here in December, with the largest chiles coming on the first growth, as is true with most chiles. The smoke-dried pasilla Mixe chiles pass from middleman to middleman. Eventually the chiles end up in the hands of a middleman in the town of Tamazulapan, who sells the chiles to a vendor at the huge Central de Abastos market in Oaxaca City.
After about an hour in the field, we head for Julian’s house, about 15 minutes up the road, where his father is smoke-drying the latest batch of chiles. Just up the hill from the house, a section of dirt has been cut from the steep hillside, creating the floor and the sides to the drying oven. Using wood poles to create a front and top along with a particular fern-like plant, ocopetate, on the top to keep the chiles from falling in, all that’s needed now is the fire inside the 5’x5’x5’ structure. The chiles require about two days to dry and the wood used is generally anything they have at their disposal, often a tree called encino. I have been told in the past these drying ovens were communal, but Julian explained that nowadays most farmers have their own. This is not to say that poorer farmers, who really don’t have land to build their own oven, don’t make arrangements with other farmers to use their ovens to dry their chiles.
We retreat to Julian’s home where his wife, sister-in-law and mother serve us delicious pasilla Mixe tamales and discuss our similar passion for the chile. Julian’s passion means pushing his fields into the 21st century with irrigation, natural pest control and continued production from the same plant. My passion is importing into the States the largest pasilla de Oaxaca chiles (presently only small ones make it to the states) I can find. We discuss the size of the chiles (six to eight inches) that I‘m looking for, what price I’d be willing to pay and when he might have a large amount for me to import. Julian’s sincere interest in providing what the market is demanding is inspiring to say the least.
The next day we continue our circuit of all the villages in the upper Mixe, only to find no one growing pasilla Mixe chiles. The experience leads me to wonder about the randomness of it all. After a year of intense, passionate research into the source of the pasilla de Oaxaca, I have found several pasilla Mixe chile producers, but only one who just happens to be bright, young and eager to expand his market. Sometimes it pays to be lucky rather than good.
Photos by Chris Guibert