Allison Park Pepper Farm Festival extols virtues of Hatch chiles
In Napa Valley, Calif., they have some of the best climate and conditions in the world for growing wine grapes.
Hatch Valley in New Mexico is kind of like that for peppers.
Nick DiCio is serious about peppers. So serious, that he flies a driver into Hatch every year to pick up a truckload of the distinctive Hatch chile peppers for a festival at his farm in Allison Park.
Starting at age 24, DiCio, now 50, has built a virtually integrated, mini-Mexican food empire in Pittsburgh: a grocery in the Strip District (Reyna Foods), a restaurant in the Strip (Casa Reyna), a tortilla-chip factory in Armstrong County, and a family farm (White Oak Farm) in Allison Park.
He invites everyone to his farm once a year to celebrate the Hatch chile pepper, and is doing so this weekend.
“Hatch peppers are so much better,” DiCio says. “The flavor, the skin and flesh is the perfect ratio. When you roast them, the skin comes right off. And it's the perfect texture to do all kinds of things. ... Put a little lime and salt on it, and it's incredible. No other pepper is like that.”
Hatch chiles didn't just appear suddenly out of nowhere.
“In New Mexico, they started many years ago, and they got the local university (New Mexico State), involved in developing seeds and got local farmers and government working together,” DiCio says. “It's a similar thing to what they did in Napa with grapes. They developed a really good pepper. The soil is perfect there for the kind of seed they use.”
Hatch chiles aren't really about heat – though there is plenty of that, if you want it.
“There's four different variations: mild, medium, hot and super-hot,” DiCio says. “We get mostly medium, but we have them all. We brought 600 sacks this year, and we sell them all. What we don't sell at the festival, we roast and freeze and use in our salsas. And sell them frozen at the store (Reyna Foods).”
One appeal of Hatch chiles is they seem to taste good in almost anything, imparting a bit of their signature flavor into unexpected things.
“We have chile ice cream — it's actually really good,” DiCio says. “It's made with vanilla ice cream from scratch at our restaurant. We'll have a Hatch green chile stew, rajas carnitas (tacos), corn on the cob with a Hatch chile pepper powder. You can put it in chocolate, beer, anything.”
Milkman Brewing in the Strip District is doing just that. They've brewed a beer with Hatch chiles.
“I gave them some chiles, and it's incredible. They did this last year and it's fabulous. Usually, when people do this, it's something you can try once, and that's it. But this is a beer you can sit down and drink.”
There are lots of peppers labeled “Hatch chiles” out there, and distributors cashing in on the Hatch name. DiCio's peppers are directly off the truck from New Mexico.
The festival will feature local chefs and food purveyors, who will be making their own creations with Hatch chiles. They include Casa Reyna, Cafe Raymond and Luke Wholey's Wild Alaskan Grille from the Strip District; Tasha's Empanadas and The Medina Cantina from Sharpsburg; and the Burgh Bites Cart and Blue Dust from Homestead.
There will be kids games, hayrides, timber-framing and blacksmithing demonstrations. Live music will be performed by The Chiodi Trio, Timbeleza, Slim Forsythe and The Quartet, Donna O., the Shelf Life String Band, Slag Tones, Scientific Soul and Mike Scheer.
DiCio hints that the festival may have to move to the Strip District as early as next year. His farm isn't big enough for everyone who wants to come.
It's been a remarkable few decades for DiCio, who started selling Mexican food when hardly anyone in Pittsburgh knew what it was.
“My ethnic background is half Mexican, half Italian,” he says. “I was born in Pittsburgh, and I grew up eating tortillas. Whenever I started to circulate in school, I was like ‘Where are the tortillas?' That's how I knew I had something unique.
“I started with chips because people know what chips are. Then, there was demand for a better tortilla. Food has totally changed in Pittsburgh. People know good from bad and demand much better quality now.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.