You can find green chiles smothered on a burrito, on top of a burger and running through the veins of New Mexicans. Beans and chile are New Mexico’s official state veggies and the option for red or green – Christmas for the indecisive – are available at almost every restaurant. But Coloradans’ love for green chile comes a close second. (Eateries such as Durango Diner and Oscar’s Cafe have a reputation for their cheese-smothered plates.)
This month marks the harvest of the popular capsicum. The family-owned Sutherland Farms north of Aztec will celebrate the bounty of the state’s signature crop with the Animas River Green Chile Festival from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For fans of the peppers, it’s worth the 30-mile drive.
D’rese Sutherland, who has owned the farm with her husband, Allen, for more than 25 years, said they started the chile event about 10 years ago.
“For most of the people in New Mexico, (green chiles) are the staple of their diet,” she said.
Sutherland Farms calls its chiles Animas River Chiles. What makes them different from Hatch Chiles, which are cultivated in the Hatch Valley near Las Cruces, N.M., is the climate where they are grown. Aztec is drier than the southern part of the state but has cooler nights. As a result, Animas River Chiles taste similar to Hatch Chiles but have a more prominent flavor. In case you’re a tourist, the green chile profile is smoky, spicy and slightly sweet.
The green chiles that go unharvested will eventually turn into red chiles in late September or early October and develop a more earthy flavor.
“They really turn red after a light frost,” Sutherland said.
More than 800 people typically visit the farm over the two festival days, during which there will be live bands, a petting zoo, train rides and face painting for kids. Attendees can grab a bite at the farm’s Purple Cow Cafe, which serves barbecue, seasonal produce and green chile-based items such as chile rellenos. The dish has been a Sutherland family recipe for decades.
“A local lady had given us the recipe,” Sutherland said. “We’ve (made it) for 30 years. We’ve made them in our family for that long or longer. Our mom started making them and passed it down.”
There is also a market on site that is currently stocked with sweet corn, spaghetti and summer squashes, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and potatoes. Plenty of green chiles will be brought in by pickers throughout the day and will be available to purchase and roast fresh in the roaster tumbler.
Chile lovers can choose from mild, medium, medium hot, hot and extra hot varieties in either a half or full bushel. A full bushel should last a year and weighs anywhere from 25 to 30 pounds and costs $25 unroasted and $30 roasted. A half bushel costs $17 unroasted and $22 roasted.
The more seeds inside the pepper, the higher the chances it will be spicy. One major green chile misconception is how green chiles get their spice, Sutherland said.
“The variety determines the heat,” she said. “A lot of people think if you don’t put water on it, (the pepper) gets hotter. There are people who swear by that, but we never found that to be true.”
If the water myth was true, this year’s chiles would be extra hot because of the lack of rainwater.
“It has been a challenge this year because a lot of times you get some rain, but we’ve been solely dependent on irrigating,” she said.
The lack of rainwater meant the chiles grew slower, about 10 days later than usual, but luckily, the 9-acre harvest was still plentiful.
Sutherland encourages families to come out to the free event to listen to music and smell the roasting chiles.
“It smells like salsa,” she said.
Even if you can’t make it to Aztec, your senses can still experience the harvest. You can purchase fresh-roasted chiles at the Sutherland Farms booth at the Durango Farmers Market on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.