In the Northern California wine country, where we keep our Napa Valley shop, the concept of “terroir” is a familiar one.
In a way that’s hard to translate, this French word expresses the way a wine’s flavors are influenced by the character of the soil and climate in which the grapevines are grown.
Terroir is one of the chief reasons California labeling laws require that winemakers must use 85 percent Napa Valley grapes in any wine they wish to sell with the Napa Valley name on it. This rule applies to all the state’s named winegrowing areas: If the Carneros name is on the label, then 85 percent of the grapes have to come from Carneros, and so forth.
Of course, wine is not the only agricultural product that’s affected by climate and soil. In New Mexico — the state that’s practically synonymous with chili peppers — the Hatch chili is particularly famed for its distinctive flavor, said to derive from the terroir of the Hatch Valley area.
Science has also played its part in the development of New Mexico’s iconic chilies: Most of the Hatch Valley-grown pepper varieties have been developed over the past century and a half by scientists at New Mexico State University.
Distinctive as the Hatch Valley terroir is, there’s only so much of it, and that led to some mislabeling as purveyors outside the state sought to capitalize on the Hatch and New Mexico chili cachet.
In 2012, state legislators passed the New Mexico Chile Advertising Act, prohibiting the sale of New Mexico-labeled peppers unless they are grown in the places named on their labels. (Not 85 percent of it, by the way — all of it must come from New Mexico, whose chili growers seem even more adamant than Napa’s viticulturalists.)
So if you’re wondering why you don’t see Hatch chili peppers in the market too often: New Mexico’s farmers can only grow so many, and state residents love their Hatch.
Here’s an easy, not-too-hot chili sauce for pasta, chicken, fish or vegetables: Get the recipe »»
Meanwhile, on the New England coast
If there’s an opposite to New Mexico in the Lower 48, it would probably be the Cape Cod coast in southern New England. Yet in a seaside village at the end of a narrow peninsula, Rooster Fricke grows more than 50 varieties of chili peppers in the sandy soil of his Nobska Farms.
Woods Hole — known for its oceanographic institution and the Marine Biological Laboratories, a pair of private organizations that study oceans and sea life — is not where you might expect to meet a chili farmer named Rooster with a cookie-duster mustache.
But Fricke has made a name for himself in the region, growing and selling rare, exotic and unusual chilies from what he calls his “microfarm” in Woods Hole village.
Among his milder offerings are Trinidad Perfume, which he describes as having “exquisite chili pepper aroma and intense flavor but no heat.” On the opposite end of the heat scale: Carolina Reaper and Ghost Pepper, “all too hot to process with bare hands.”
Year-round, Fricke dispenses growing advice and purveys spicy sauces, jellies and chili-spiked chocolates. In the spring, he sells seedlings to eager gardeners and gives tours of Nobska Farms. Find out more at nobskafarms.com.
And if you’d like to taste some of the world’s most distinctive chili peppers — subtle New Mexico, sublime Smoked Serrano, fiery Habanero and even hotter flavors — stop by our shop in the Oxbow Public Market.