Steve Sando, the owner of Napa Valley’s Rancho Gordo, is a persuasive heirloom-bean salesman. He’s making beans exciting, and it’s a sight to behold. At his outdoor stall at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, he might hand a shopper a bag of tan-and-violet-striped Eye of the Goat beans, explaining how they taste so much like steak that they recently resolved the marital difficulties a customer was having with her vegetarian husband. Or he might pull out his Good Mother Stallards, covered in white and purple swirls, and describe how they create such a delicious “pot liquor,” or broth, when slow-simmered in water that it’s like free soup.
Through Rancho Gordo, Sando sells nearly 30 varieties of heirloom beans from Mexico, Peru, Colombia and the American Southwest—rarer, older, intensely flavorful breeds rejected by industrial agriculture because yields can be small and unpredictable. Sando finds many of these beans on trips through remote parts of Central and South America. (Increasingly, customers also mail him their own bean finds.) He judges by looks as well as flavor, planting his most beautiful discoveries on two acres of land by his house in Napa. If he likes how they taste, he sends the beans to farmers, who grow them on 150 acres in the Napa and Central valleys. Sando spreads the word through an online store (ranchogordo.com), at the Ferry Building and in his brand-new cookbook, Heirloom Beans.
By his own count, bean entrepreneur is Sando’s seventh career. He’s been a clothing salesman and an aspiring diet guru (he first conceived of Rancho Gordo, or “fat ranch” in Spanish, to promote Mexican food for weight loss). For one year in the late 1980s, he worked as a jazz DJ for a radio station in Milan, where he mixed classic American cocktails on the air, holding the shaker up to the microphone. As that experience suggests, he’s always loved American food and drink. In the early ’90s, back in the States and working as a consultant and graphic designer, he began growing native American varieties of heirloom tomatoes at his home in Napa. Then, one day in 1999, he was flipping through a seed catalog and spotted a picture of some Rio Zape beans. Burnished-sienna with black streaks, the pinto-like beans were used by the Hopi Indians of the Southwest as a string bean. Sando bought some, planted a few and cooked the rest. “They had these hints of chocolate and coffee, these flavors I’d never tasted in a bean before,” he recalls. “I thought, Well, here’s something I know, only it tastes so much better. I just wanted to try more.”
He began planting more and more beans: flageolets (“It’s OK, they sound French, but they’re originally from Oaxaca,” he laughs), borlotti (originally from Colombia) and limas (originally from Peru). Instead of promoting sidecars in pidgin Italian, he found himself rising at 5 a.m. to carry his beans to farmers’ markets and restaurants.
Today Sando has close to 100 chef customers all over the country, thanks to his enthusiasm, his passion for teaching the best way to cook his beans and, of course, the beans themselves—stored in Rancho Gordo’s climate-controlled warehouse for no more than 12 months, unlike mass-market beans, which Sando says can sit in hot silos for years. Thomas Keller, his first chef-customer, wrote the foreward to Sando’s book; other chefs contributed recipes. Laurence Jossel of San Franciso’s Nopa restaurant created the dishes here. He discovered his first Rancho Gordo beans shortly after opening Nopa in 2006. They were small, white cellini runner beans, a more assertive version of Italian cannellini, which he stirs into a lush clam chowder with butternut squash. He now also uses earthy Midnight Black beans to make surprisingly satisfying burgers, spread with a potently smoky blend of roasted red peppers and tangy feta cheese. At Jossel’s new Mexican place, Nopalito, the chef wants to serve refried Rio Zapes with zippy pickled nopales, or cactus paddles, and fresh corn tortillas.
Jossel’s eclectic recipes prove Sando’s point about his beans’ versatility. “You can take them with you to France or Istanbul or Vermont; you can plant them anywhere and cook them with anything,” he says. “They adapt to local tastes.”
Although Sando’s goal is to offer beans—and chiles and corn, too—from all over the Americas, for now, he is focused on Mexico. Jossel also plans to use as many imported Mexican ingredients as he can at Nopalito. Sando is particularly concerned that Mexican heirlooms could start to disappear in the wake of NAFTA’s requirement that the country eliminate its agricultural tariffs on beans and corn. Having phased out the last of these taxes this year, Mexico may soon see more beans and corn from the U.S. that could threaten its own farms.
“Seed savers and groups that advocate slower approaches to cooking are important,” Sando says. “But the best way to protect these seeds is to make them commercially viable. Once you eat them, you realize this is not just about romantic ideals; you want to save them because they taste so good.”