Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
HATCH – That smokey, spicy aroma is in the air again.
Roasted green chile: It’s the star of this southern New Mexico village this weekend, which is hosting its annual Hatch Chile Festival today and Sunday.
From the roasters churning chile at tents on the main drag into town to the large-scale chile packers firing up chile by the ton, visitors will find this farm town in the full swing of harvest and roasting season. The festival routinely draws up to 30,000 people to Hatch – population 1,656 – from across the Southwest and beyond.
“Of course, chile is the main thing they are after,” said Fred Cabrales, who greeted customers this week at Hatch Chile Express, a store filled with chile-themed glassware, clothing, mementos, salsa and bins of different varieties of Hatch green chile.
Hatch Chile Express owner Jo Lytle, whose family has been farming chile in the Hatch Valley for four generations and is the founder of the medium-hot Big Jim variety, fretted one recent morning over the arrival of a fresh batch of green chile for the store.
Then Jimmy, her husband, pulled up in a pickup loaded with burlap sacks filled with chiles freshly picked that morning.
New Mexico’s green chile harvest is about a third of the way through, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, running just slightly behind last year’s progress at this time.
Southern New Mexico has had an active monsoon season, and the rains have been both a blessing and a curse for chile farmers who have been dealing with years of drought, according to Jimmy Lytle.
He has lost about 20 percent of his crop this year, he said, to rain-related scourges, including root rot.
Around Hatch, dozens of workers in long sleeves and wide-brimmed hats pulled green pods from lush plants, filling buckets by the hundreds.
At this weekend’s festival, freshly picked green chile will take center stage in cook-offs, eating contests, salsa competitions and in the crowning of the annual “Chile Queen.”
“At the chile festival, people are roasting chile left and right,” said Mayor Andy Nuñez. “It’s the biggest event we have of the year.”
At Hatch Chile Express, fresh green chile is running $1 per pound. The store offers a 40-pound gunny sack for $30, a discount. A pound of frozen green chile costs $5.50. Any amount of fresh chile can be roasted for $10.74 per transaction.
There will be a market dedicated to New Mexico arts and crafts, and live music on both days, including bands, mariachi and folklorico music. Visitors will find carnival rides, a water park, vendor booths and a beer garden.
The festival opens Saturday at 9 a.m. with a parade and ends the day with a dance starting at 9 p.m.
The Hatch Chile Festival has made the shortlist of nominees to a USA Today ranking of the nation’s Top 10 food festivals. Readers have until Sept. 1 to vote.