My memories of Santa Fe are infused with the smell of burning piñon pine. It smoulders in the city’s fireplaces through winter, perfuming the rooms and streets with a smell at once smoky and sweet, with hints of oud wood and frankincense, both fresh and deep, like a pine forest’s humus floor after a storm. It flavours the food you eat: the blue corn tortillas, salsa verde enchiladas, the cappuccinos (and everything else) at the divine Café Pasquals’, the cinnamon-and-cayenne-spiced Mexican hot chocolate at Kakawa Chocolate House, the bread at Sage Bakehouse, the crepes at the crêperie in La Fonda, the escargot at Clafoutis French Bakery and Restaurant, the tapas at La Boca, the tortilla soup at The Shed, and the steak at Geronimo.
Santa Fe is a city people return to, perhaps because that piñon smell cannot be found anywhere else and you start to crave it with a hunger that can only be satiated by going back. Many people, particularly Texans, seem to make annual pilgrimages into its arid mountains, lured by the promise of monsoon rains in the summer and snow in the winter. At Geronimo I once overheard a big, cowboy-hat wearing man with a strong Dallas accent ask, “Waitress, what’re them little orange bb’s on my plate?”
The locals are welcoming, serene, both rugged and elegant. There’s a particular type of woman, tall and lithe, who wears her long white hair down or in a knot, who dresses beautifully in black or local earth tones of copper red and sage green, and can be seen out walking to work in the early morning. Then there are the young, dreadlocked free spirits, the jewellery-makers, the earthy types, the artists and the writers.
The city’s nights are cold and aromatic. They give way to bright, crisp mornings as the sun pours over the mountain and warms the adobe buildings in a rosy glow. The pace of the days is different, a phenomenon often called “New Mexico Time”. You can adorn yourself in silver and turquoise, wrap yourself in shearling, and spend hours over breakfast or wandering the streets, looking at a single painting in the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, perusing the galleries on Canyon Road, or sitting outside at Tabla de Los Santos in the evening with a glass of wine. You can write, paint, photograph, or simply sit and watch, breathing in the unforgettable smell of piñon.