A plague of whiteflies descended on the Martínez family’s fields of yellow, red, and deep purple chilhuacle in southern Mexico two decades ago. Chilhuacle is the star chilli in several versions of Oaxaca’s signature dish – mole – and cooks had long paid a premium for the chilli’s unique smoke and citrus flavours. But its cost was about to climb higher.
The chilhuacle is not important to filling Mexican bellies the way corn and beans are. It is important for different reasons, closer to how halva marks death in some Muslim cultures or Easter eggs mark resurrection in Christianity. At Day of the Dead and other festive occasions Mexicans eat black mole, a sauce whose smoky, ashy flavour centuries-old texts ascribe to chilhuacle.
The chilli’s cultural weight attracted a Mexico City chef and a Oaxaca plant biologist, who began visiting Félix Martínez and other growers in the region, the Cañada de Oaxaca. Since then, a loose-knit mix of locals and outsiders have financed planting costs, worked with growers to develop pest-resistant production methods, and even begun experimenting with growing chilhuacle elsewhere.