Speaking against a backdrop of two soaring, snow-capped volcanoes, Asuncion Diaz explained his fight to save the original poblano chili pepper, one of the most important ingredients in Mexican cuisine, from climate change and other threats.
The pristine panorama notwithstanding, Diaz and other producers in Puebla said that climate change is stalking this mountainous region in central Mexico and threatening the dark green chili pepper for which it is famous.
“The chilies get burned by the sun and if it rains they go bad,” said Diaz, a 55-year-old agricultural engineer, taking a break from work on his plantation outside San Andres Calpan, a village nestled in the skirts of the region’s twin volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl.
Looking up at the first volcano, which locals affectionately call “Popo,” farmer Hilda Cruz concurred that the area is heating up.
“When I was a little girl, Popocatepetl had snow year-round. I was 35 when I saw it without snow for the first time. It made me cry,” the 64-year-old said.
The disappearing snow has been caused in part by increased volcanic activity inside Popo’s crater.
However, the Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources has said that climate change is also wreaking havoc on the region, causing droughts, frost and heavy precipitation.
Cruz runs a cooperative that helps local farmers sell their produce directly to some of Mexico’s most famous restaurants.
She said that her mission is to save the “saberes y sabores” — the knowledge and flavors — of traditional Mexican food.
Climate change is just one of the threats facing the ingredients of Mexico’s renowned cuisine, which was named an essential part of the world’s cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2010.
Hybrid seeds, globalization and consumers’ demand for immaculate produce are also taking their toll on ingredients like the poblano, which is used in Puebla’s luscious mole — a spicy, chocolatey sauce — and in chiles en nogada, an iconic dish associated with Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16.
Diaz said that the poblano has also taken a hit because of the arrival of hybrid seeds imported from China that grow year-round and are more weather-resistant — but also yield less-tasty, less-crunchy peppers.
“We’re losing the tradition of the original chili, the one our ancestors ate,” he told reporters.
Biting into a classic poblano chili at a family dinner in Mexico City, Enrique Garcia closed his eyes in bliss. He agreed.
“I haven’t eaten one like this since I was a boy. They’re like my grandmother’s — the texture, the thickness, the crunchiness,” the 49-year-old said.
According to the WWF, which last month launched a campaign to save Mexico’s classic ingredients, six out of every 10 chilies consumed in the country today come from Chinese seeds.
However, now some farmers and chefs are fighting back to save Mexico’s indigenous chilies, beans, tomatoes, gourds, maize and more.
They include star chef Ricardo Munoz Zurita, the man behind Azul, one of Mexico City’s top restaurants.
Every year in August and September — chiles en nogada season — he regales customers with his lavish take on the traditional dish. It is a symbol of Mexico with its green peppers bathed in creamy white sauce and topped with red pomegranate seeds — the colors of the Mexican flag.
Munoz Zurita buys his chilies from Diaz’s plantation, which meticulously protects its crop from hybrid seeds.
The Mazatlan Post