Chasing a Flavour
Sometimes a taste, like a favourite song, sticks with you, calling your attention back to it again and again.
That’s how it’s been for Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard with aji molido, a coarsely ground red chilli from Argentina. In 1968, he and a few friends went down to Patagonia to climb Fitz Roy, also known as Cerro Chaltén, from a Teheulche (Aonikenk) word for “smoking mountain.” 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 chilli gave it a rich, mellow warmth, not too hot and full of flavour.
There are hundreds of variations on chimichurri, but the essential ingredient, from Yvon’s point of view, was aji molido (literally “ground chilli”) made from a long red chilli known in Argentina as aji criollo. Nothing else gave the sauce its nuanced, layered heat.
Despite years of looking, the only place Yvon ever found the proper chillies 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.
On the road to Chaltén (Fitz Roy), in Patagonia, where Yvon Chouinard and friends traveled in 1968. Argentina’s aji criollo, the chilli from which aji molido is ground, thrives north of here, in the mountains of the Salta province. Photo: Chris Jones.
Eventually Yvon tried to grow the chillies 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 exactly the right source for aji criollo: in Argentina’s Salta province, where the spice company Molino Cerrillos grows the chillies at 8,200 feet. The growers believe a combination of extreme altitude, dry air, scanty irrigation and harsh limestone soil makes the plants fight for survival and results in deeper, richer flavours – the way grapes grown in tough conditions can develop added character, too. What tempers the chilli’s heat? Most likely the climate, which never exceeds 90° F and often hangs out around 50° F or 60° F.
Coarsely ground aji molido adds mellow heat and rich, toasty flavour to several foods we make at Provisions. Photo: Amy Kumler.
Molino Cerrillos worked with Provisions to grow the first organic aji criollo in Argentina, rejecting synthetic fertilisers and adding compost. Given the remote location of the farm—from the provincial city of Salta, it’s a drive of several hours on unpaved mountain roads and across rocky riverbeds—every change was a challenge, including bringing in new supplies and arranging for organic certifiers to come from Buenos Aires.
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. Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina. Photo: Chris Jones.
By harvest time in May, the chillies ripen to a brilliant scarlet and then dry on the plant, further concentrating the flavour. To preserve the vivid color as the chillies 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 sterilise, and shipped to the States. Provisions blends these remarkable chillies into several different foods, with more on the horizon.
After all these years, finding the right source for aji molido has been a useful reminder that great flavour tends to be rooted in a place.
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 flavour. Look for it in our Spicy Buffalo Jerky, Regenerative Organic Chile Mango snack and Spicy Red Bean Chili. Buen provecho!
For Aji Molido and an expanding collection of responsibly sourced foods, each with a story to tell, visit Patagonia Provisions.
Banner image – After the chillies are picked high in the mountains of Argentina’s Salta province, they’re trucked to the Molino Cerrillos facility to be ground and steam-sterilised. Photo: Galen McCleary.