The Mother of Chilies
I think my first introduction to chiltepins was a couple of years before we opened The Mission Old Town. I’d used chiltepins before, but I didn’t know much about them. Now, they’re one of—if not my favorite—peppers. I even grow them in my backyard for personal use.
Let me back up. It was fall 2006 when a friend and I were traveling to do the Liver Alliance fundraiser, “Flavors of Tucson”. We happened along a farmer’s market where I bought my first chiltepins. I really enjoyed the fruity flavor with some intense heat, and I was working on another concept based on pork, corn and tequila. So I went on a journey to find out more about these amazing little peppers.
As that concept faded away and The Mission became more of a reality and I worked more with the pepper more, I discovered the scarcity of it. The chiltepin, like me, is a rare native to Arizona, and only grows in a very small radius in the upper Sonoran desert. It has not been cultivated and only grows wild, as well. It’s handpicked and dried on the side of the road, October-December, so it’s a finite product.
I was able to buy dried chiltepin but it was expensive and it was old—it didn’t have that bright, fruit- and heat-forward flavor that I had in Tucson. So I had to put aside my idea of turning it into a hot sauce and featuring it in multiple dishes. In fact, until recently we’ve really only used it in a few dishes since we opened The Mission because I couldn’t find “the good stuff”.
Fast forward a couple of years, when a young, talented cook Rene “Chito” Andrade, came to work for me and connected me back to the chiltepin. Every fall Chito would bring me a beautiful bag of freshly dried peppers from his uncle’s farm.
I asked him to bring me green peppers before they were dried. He couldn’t bring those across the border, so he pickled some and man, are they hot! To this day, I keep a jar of those in my refrigerator.
Chito went on to work for Beau MacMillan at Elements and now he’s at Ghost Ranch with Aaron Chamberlain. Throughout the years, though, we connect every October and talk chiltepine which invigorates my interest and passion for this pepper. During my research, I found a UC Berkeley study that says the chiltepin is the mother of all chilies.
Between Chito and his uncle, we’re getting more chiltepins and my dream of doing a hot sauce that we ferment and barrel-age for The Missions is coming true. I invite you in to try it, and the crispy pork & cola lime glaze appetizer, that features this amazing pepper.