Chasing a Flavor

A years-long quest to find the right chile
Most great tastes tend to be rooted in place. From left: Yvon Chouinard, Doug Tompkins and Lito Tejada-Flores take a chimichurri-infused lunch break before continuing their ascent of Fitz Roy in 1968.
Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina.
Photo by Chris Jones

Sometimes a taste, like a song, gets inside your head and sticks there, calling your attention back to it again and again.

That's how it's been for Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard with Argentine-style aji molido, a mild, coarsely ground red chile.

On the road to Mt. Fitz Roy, in Patagonia, where Yvon Chouinard and his friends traveled in 1968. Argentina's aji criollo thrives north of here, in the mountains of the Salta province.
Photo by Chris Jones

In 1968, he and a few friends went down to Patagonia to climb Fitz Roy. They spent weeks waiting out the bad weather, and ended up camping and eating with a group of gauchos who would grill mutton—and then, from an old wine bottle with a slit cork, sprinkle the hot meat with chimichurri, a garlicky, vinegary sauce flecked with dried herbs and aji molido. The sauce could keep for weeks without refrigeration, and the chile gave it a rich, mellow warmth, not too hot and full of flavor.

There are hundreds of variations on chimichurri, but the essential ingredient, from Yvon’s point of view, was aji molido (literally “ground chile”), made from a long red chile know in Argentina as aji criollo. Nothing else gave the sauce its nuanced, layered heat.

Despite years of looking for the chile of his memories, the only place Yvon ever found one that came close was El Gato Negro, an herb shop in Buenos Aires. Whenever he was there, he’d buy a giant stash to store in the freezer, for making chimichurri and seasoning a lot of other stuff, too: meat, potatoes, squash and grains.

Eventually Yvon tried to grow the chiles from seed at home in California, but they turned out too spicy. More years passed. 

Finally, in 2017, with help from the team at Patagonia’s food company, Patagonia Provisions, Yvon found an ideal source for aji molido: in Argentina’s Salta province, where the spice company Molino Cerrillos grows the chiles at 8,200 feet.

Left: Coarsely ground aji molido adds mellow heat and rich, toasty flavor to several foods we make at Provisions. Photo by Amy Kumler
Right: Aji criollo drying on the vine at 8,200 feet. Once the chiles are picked, they’re trucked to the Molino Cerrillos facility to be ground and steam-sterilized. Photo by Galen McCleary

The growers believe a combination of extreme altitude, dry air, scanty irrigation, and harsh limestone soil make the plants fight for survival and results in deeper, richer flavors—the way grapes grown in tough conditions can develop added character, too. What tempers the chile’s heat? Most likely the climate, which never exceeds 90 F and often hangs out at around 50 or 60 F.

Molino Cerrillos worked with Provisions to grow the first organic aji criollo in Argentina, rejecting synthetic fertilizers and adding compost. Given the remote location of the farm, every change was a challenge, including bringing in new supplies and arranging for organic certifiers to fly in from Buenos Aires. From the provincial city of Salta, getting to the fields involves a drive of several hours on steep, unpaved mountain roads and through rocky riverbeds.

By harvest time in May, the chiles ripen to a brilliant scarlet and then dry on the plant, further concentrating the flavor. To preserve the vivid color as the chiles dry, the plants are uprooted and laid under shade trees. Then the pods are picked and trucked to the Molino Cerrillos facility in Salta, ground and briefly steamed to sterilize, and shipped to the States. Provisions blends these remarkable chiles into several different foods, with more on the horizon..

After all these years, the search has ended—a useful reminder that great flavor tends to be rooted in a place.

Gauchos gather sheep on a sprawling, remote ranch for the annual shearing. Tuco Tuco Valley, Patagonia.
Photo by Beth Wald
Organic Aji Molido

As the cornerstone of our new organic spice line, Aji Molido is available on its own and is the hero ingredient in our Chimichurri  and Taco Seasoning blends. It also infuses a growing number of our foods with its subtle heat and rich, toasty flavor. Look for it in our Spicy Buffalo Jerky, our Regenerative Organic™ Chile Mango snack and our Spicy Red Bean Chili. Buen provecho!