Once Upon A Time in Oaxaca
The moment Lars tasted Pasilla Mixe chilis in the Central de Abastos market in Oaxaca city, he knew that the complex smoky, and yet fruity layers of the chili could transport anyone who tasted it to the rugged mountains of the Sierra Norte.
Naturally, he decided to buy an extra suitcase and bring 35 kg back to Copenhagen. Our first iteration of Ayuuk was born.
What ensued was an adventure in finding our way back to the chili.
Sourcing Pasilla Mixe
Needless to say, one suitcase was not enough. Our sourcing magician Yunus was given the mission to find the Pasilla Lars tasted. After trialing many samples and banging our heads against the wall, we realized that the only way for us to find it was to go back to Oaxaca.
The Pasilla Mixe chili is native to the Eastern part of the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca, Mexico. It is grown in the rugged mountains of the Sierra Mixe region at an altitude of around 1400 meters above sea level and higher.
The Mixe people, called ‘Ayuukjä'äy’ in their language, have been painstakingly growing the chili for centuries. Unfortunately, the tradition is slowly dying out. Middlemen, referred to as coyotes, press the price so low that the farmers often struggle to make an income from the chili that matches the hard work involved. Incomes are supplemented by growing other crops, like coffee beans.
After being introduced to 7 families in Santa Maria Huitepec and Santa Maria Alotepec, we started working hand in hand with them. Paying for this incredible chili at its fair value, recompensing the arduous work of the Mixe people was for us the least we could do. We soon broadened our network to include families in the neighboring villages of Loma Esperenza and San Pedro Totolapa
What started in 2019 as a 7-family project in two villages soon turned into a 73-family affair across 4 municipalities.
Watch the video captured by Arthur Couvat, recounting our visit to the Mixe community of Santa Maria Huitepec and Alotepec in 2019 alongside agronomist Adan Jimenez.
Growing Pasilla Mixe
The communities in the region work the land as their families always have. They do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides but instead use crop rotation principles to maintain the fertility of the land.
Before each growing season, a plot of land on the rugged mountainside is cleared by hand of other plants and prepared for the new chili plants.
Seedlings for the chili plants are grown in the spring some hundred meters below the fields, where the lower altitudes allow for a warmer climate that soothes the young plants. When they are ready for replanting, they are carried further up the mountain. A plant will carry 6 to 7 chilies, some will even develop up to 15 fruits, all packing incredible flavors.
The chilies grow for approximately two months. Starting green, they will gradually take on a bright red color, darkening as they reach maturity. While they are harvested by hand in June in Huitepec, they are not fully ripe until September in San Pedro Totolapa. After the mature fruits are harvested, the farmers select the seeds of the best peppers and save them for the next year.
The chilies are smoked shortly after harvest with local hardwood wood in either homemade jerry-rigged ovens or communal furnaces to preserve them. Turning and removing the chilies by hand, each family spends day and night by the ovens for weeks until all the chilies have been smoked.
When ready, they turn into a rich, almost black, red color, imparting the incredible smoky, slightly meaty and leathery notes found in Ayuuk.
Ayuuk is a love letter to the Mixe people, their centuries-old traditions, encapsulating the aromas of Oaxaca and its landscape. Each sip transports you to the Sierra Norte.