Where the chili rules
How does it feel to taste the hottest peppers in the world? A visit to Las Cruces will let you test your chili pepper tolerance, as well as introduce you to the many charms of New Mexico
I like a little heat. Actually, I pride myself on being able to take a lot of heat. I always order the "inferno" chicken wings and the curry with four little red chilis beside its name on the menu. But even I, a seasoned and proud chilihead, hit the wall with the Bhut Jolokia pepper.
I met my chili Waterloo at the shrine to the pepper, the Chile Pepper Institute. The institute is the only one in the world totally dedicated to the study and cultivation of the chili pepper.
It's arcane, hard to find, smallish and really cool – tucked away on the campus of New Mexico State University in downtown Las Cruces. It is a serious place, so serious that the institute was awarded a Guinness World Record for discovering the hottest chili in the world – the Bhut Jolokia.
When you consider that the ubiquitous jalapeno pepper scores about 10,000 heat units on the Scoville scale (the international measure for the heat of peppers), the realization that the Bhut Jolokia pepper measures more than one million Scoville heat units (SHU) gives one pause. Even more amazing is the fact that the Chile Pepper Institute has since grown the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, which clocks in at somewhere around two million SHU.
Ever the culinary risk-taker, I sampled the Holy Jolokia purée – just a smidgen on the tip of my finger, touched quickly to the end of my tongue. Twenty minutes later, I still couldn't feel my cheeks. Awesome.
There is more to chilis than heat, however, and Adan Delval, the program specialist at the institute, explains some of the breeding goals it is working on. "I am very excited about our ornamental chili plant varieties," he says. "We are developing several ranges of bright colours and shapes, making them perfect for accent plants in landscapes or inside as a decorative element."
But can you eat ornamental peppers? "All peppers are edible," Delval says. "But the ornamental ones are bred for colour and appearance. They will be very hot, but not have much chili flavour."
His favourite? "Right now, I really love the new jalapenos that we are developing. They range in colour – pale green, yellow, orange – and they are very flavourful."
The institute sells seeds for many of the exotic chili peppers (there will be Jolokias and Trinidad Scorpions growing in my garden) as well as posters, cookbooks, books about chili peppers, and several chili products – sauces, chili powder, even chili-decorated T-shirts. You can order many of the products from its website.
The institute also has a chili pepper teaching garden where visitors can view more than 150 kinds of chilis. Look out for the NuMex Big Jim, the institute's record holder for the world's largest chili pepper.
The chili pepper is central to New Mexican cuisine. The founder of the Chile Pepper Institute, Fabian Garcia, developed the New Mexican pepper, which has become a staple in dishes across the state. It is a long, narrow pepper, green to begin with, but red when fully ripe, with a medium heat and a garlicky, sweet and slightly smoky taste. That chili features on almost every menu in Las Cruces and surrounding communities. Many shops display a "ristra," an artfully arranged string of dried chili peppers, and if you visit in the fall, the air is rich with the smell of chilis being roasted.
Because the area also grows pecans, there are some delicious marriages of pecans and chilis. At the Las Cruces Farmers Market, one of the largest in North America, I found candied chili pecans and chili-infused pecan brittle, a decadent fusion of nuttiness, sweetness and heat.
At the Pecan Grill, I sampled green chili stew, a green chili margarita, green chili pizza and green chili ice cream. Best of all was a "Corked Bat" from a sports bar called The Game II, a peeled and seeded green chili, stuffed with cheddar cheese, breaded with crushed pecans and deep-fried. It was delicious, and not overly spicy.
But Las Cruces is not entirely about chilis. There's much to do in this historic town, close to the Rio Grande River and cupped by the Organ Mountains. There are excellent hiking and biking trails,and one of the most popular is the 6.4-kilometre hike to the ruins of the old Dripping Springs hotel and sanctuary, and on to La Cueva, a mountain cave that provided shelter for prehistoric Mogollon people. The abandoned Dripping Springs resort was built in the late 1800s by a former Confederate officer, and flourished for years until financial difficulties led to its closing. It was run as a tuberculosis sanatorium, and then left again to decay. The old buildings are interesting, but the beauty of the surrounding mountains, the fresh-water spring, and the views of the valley below are the real attraction. It's not a difficult hike, though you do climb steadily. It's a bonus if the cactus are in flower. Hardy hikers can continue on to La Cueva, a cave with a long history and many stories, including one of an Italian priest who became a hermit and took up residence in it until he was murdered.
For culture, the New Mexico State University Art Gallery is home to more than 1,700 19th-century Mexican retablos, the largest collection in the United States. Retablos are small devotional paintings, placed on church altars, often done on tin, and frequently depicting a tragedy averted by divine intervention. Their vibrant colours, folk-art style and personal stories make them both beautiful and moving. The gallery also showcases local artists.
Nearby is the otherworldly White Sands National Monument, a carefully preserved expanse with kilometres of fine white gypsum sand dunes. It is the largest such natural site in the world. Walking through the dunes is unnerving – the sand is white as snow, and it's cool to the touch, but there's a burning hot sun overhead in a clear blue sky. Even stranger is the sight of kids and adults speeding down the highest dunes on sleds. A guided sunset walk through the white dunes, as the sands turn pink and gold and the stars come out, feels like a lunar stroll. There are special hikes on nights when the moon is full.
Mesilla, close by, is a historic New Mexico town, famous for hosting a murder trial that condemned Billy the Kid, and it's full of interesting shops and good places to dine, as well as its carefully restored and attractive Basilica of San Albino. The mission-style basilica was built in 1908 on the grounds of the original church that was established in 1852. The stained-glass windows are magnificent, and best viewed in late afternoon with the sun streaming through. The town's plaza is one of the few that remains as it was in the early years, surrounded by traditional adobe structures that today house boutiques and galleries. Bowlin's Mesilla Book Center sells pecan oil and freshly ground chili powder, and the Mesilla Book Centre is a place to linger out of the midday sun while browsing through books on local history and western lore. La Posta Restaurant celebrates New Mexico cuisine in a rambling building full of statues, carvings, whimsical art pieces and colourful murals.
For music lovers, there is the annual Las Cruces Country Music Festival (held in May this year but with a planned move to the fall for 2018). It is a celebration of country music, featuring stars like Tanya Tucker, Kacey Musgraves and Travis Tritt. Young girls, dancing together in front of the stage, wear short dresses with denim jackets and cowboy boots – a look that is dressed up and dressed down at the same time.
The New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum is a good family activity and a reminder of the hardships of cowboy life, with heritage cattle, cowboy art and antique farming equipment. For those who like their tipple, there's an Ale Trail that takes visitors to several local microbreweries. There is, of course, a green chili beer.
But best is the Walk of Flame, the Green Chile Trail that leads visitors to 28 restaurants, retail stores and producers, where the chili rules.
Green chili wine at St. Clair's Winery, green chili lasagne at Lorenzo's Italian Restaurant and, at La Posta de Mesilla, a "chile-rita," a potent margarita that is a blend of "Besito Caliente" blackberry and habanero sauce, lime juice, Hornitos 100 per cent Agave Reposado tequila and Patron Citronge, a lime-infused tequila liqueur. It's a drink that packs a double punch. At Crazy Maizy's, you can finish with green chili popcorn.
You don't have to be a chilihead to enjoy Las Cruces. But if you are one, it's nirvana.
- One fresh green chili has as much Vitamin C as six oranges.
- Hot chili peppers burn calories by triggering a thermodynamic burn that speeds up the metabolism.
- Chili pepper tea can be used to treat a sore throat.
- Wild chilis are spread by birds, who do not have receptors in their mouths to feel the heat.
- All chili peppers, even ornamentals, are edible.
- Chili peppers are relatives of tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants, all belonging to the nightshade family.
- Oleoresin, the colour extracted from very red chili peppers, is used in everything from lipstick to processed meats.
Chile Pepper Institute, New Mexico State University