The Rancho Gordo Story

You Can Blame it All on the Dutch

I was shopping one August for tomatoes and, despite Napa being one of the world's most magnificent agricultural regions, all the tomatoes were from a hothouse in Holland! Worse, they were hard and pale pink instead of the ripe tomatoes I was craving. I started to grow my own tomatoes and this eventually led to beans.

My first harvested heirloom bean was Rio Zape. They were pretty and easy to grow but I had no idea what to expect when I cooked them. They were similar to the pintos I liked but there was so much more going on. Hints of chocolate and coffee mixed with an earthy texture made my head spin. I was blown away by Rio Zape and the other heirloom beans I was growing, but also really confused why they were such a big secret. I took the beans to the farmers market, organizing things on my kitchen table. Soon there was a warehouse, followed by more markets and mail order. It seems we had struck a nerve. People agreed that heirloom beans were worth saving, growing and cooking. Currently our warehouse, a retail shop and offices are in Napa, California and a stop here is part of many tours of the wine country. We were asked to open a store at the Ferry Building in San Francisco and as you can imagine, we jumped at the chance. 

All of my agricultural pursuits have been based on being someone who likes to cook but gets frustrated by the lack of ingredients, especially those that are native to the New World. One of the things that originally drew me to beans was the fact that they are indigenous to the Americas. It seems to me these indigenous ingredients should be familiar, if not common. American cuisine is re-inventing itself and I'd love to include ingredients, traditions and recipes from north and south of the border as part of the equation. I love the concept of The Americas. I feel as if it's just as important as the European heritage many of us share.


New World Food Is International Food

Of course you don't need to know where food originates in order to enjoy it. Beans are amazing and work in almost every cuisine. They may have come from Mexico but can you imagine anything more French than the Flageolet bean? Borlotti may be the pride of the Piedmont in Italy but they wouldn't exist without their roots in Colombia.

I’ve always loved beans and I remember the first thrill of turning little rocks into something delicious, with very little effort. I started out cooking them in a stock pot and later experimented with slow cookers, pressure cookers and even clay pots. I have been somewhat of an infidel. Sometimes I soak, often I don’t. When I’m in a real hurry, I’m happy to use a pressure cooker. If I want to have beans when I come home from the office, a slow cooker has been dependable and the aroma when I open the door makes me pretend “the staff” has been working all day for my benefit. Best of all is Sunday when I have friends coming over for dinner and can lovingly cook some heirloom beans in a clay pot to share with them.

The more I eat beans, the more I crave them. I’ve managed to eat them most days and while I have some tricks for incorporating them into a lot of dishes, my real pleasure is a simple bowl on its own. Grocery store commodity beans have their place but for creamy indulgence that’s actually good for you, what can beat heirloom beans?

The Rancho Gordo Ag Network

I quickly learned that I wasn't a particularly gifted farmer and in order to grow the amounts of beans I'd need to satisfy the demand, I'd have to work with bigger growers. We now have growers in Central California, Oregon, Washington and New Mexico. We also work with small farms in Mexico for their really rare crops through the Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Project.

My goal is to support Northern California agriculture but there are some instances where the best quality means sourcing outside of my state. Sourcing quinoa and amaranth led me to a cooperative in South America that hand-harvests the Rancho Gordo products.

I'm lucky enough to travel throughout the Americas searching for unique and rare legumes and herbs that I'll bring back to my trial gardens here in Napa. Each summer I grow them to see if they'd be suitable for production or just seed-saving. We're starting to develop a substantial seed bank as friends and customers are constantly sending me odd and rare beans from their travels. I share seeds via the Seeds Savers Exchange and I'd encourage anyone to give growing beans a go. It's easy, fun and the rewards are almost immediate.


The World Has Discovered Rancho Gordo and Heirloom Beans

Press coverage of Rancho Gordo has been plentiful, no doubt in part due to the colorful beans themselves. When I first started, beans seemed to be off of almost everyone’s radar. The press has been very generous in helping to spread the word about what we do. Recent articles on Rancho Gordo in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Chow, Sunset, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Country Home, San Francisco Chronicle, and Chile Pepper have all contributed to the groundswell of interest in heirloom beans and New World food. In January of 2008, Saveur Magazine listed Rancho Gordo at number two on their esteemed Saveur 100 list.


Rancho Gordo Books

I've written three books, Supper at Rancho Gordo (RG Books), The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Grower's Guide (Timber Press) and Heirloom Beans: Great Recipes from Rancho Gordo (with Vanessa Barrington) (Chronicle Books). With the publication of Supper at Rancho Gordo, we've launched Rancho Gordo Books. Our goal is high quality, short run, special interest publications. This is a fancy way of justifying books I'd want to read or keep for my own library.

Your Pals in the Bean Business

From growing the best and most interesting beans available, to making sure all crops are fresh and a pleasure to cook with, to providing you with great instructions, recipes and tips here on our website, on our blog and most importantly, through our bi-monthly email newsletter, we want you to make the best beans. There are no excuses for bad beans when it's so easy to make a rich, delicious pot of creamy goodness. Feel free to contact us at our offices or call one of our stores if you need a little more personal help. One thing you'll notice when talking with a Rancho Gordo employee: we love to talk about beans and all of our products. We want to make help you make your meals memorable. 

Steve's Soapbox

Please indulge me one last thought. As you cook these heirloom beans and other grains and ingredients, keep in mind that we have a common New World culture with Mexico and the rest of the Americas. What you are doing isn’t exotic and esoteric. It’s continuing traditions that are well-established for a reason. I think most of us who are immigrants to the Americas are staying, so rather than constantly trying to reproduce English gardens or European wine, it’s nice to know what’s from here and discover ways of incorporating these ingredients into your kitchen. New World food is exciting, tasty, healthy, romantic, and possibly, easier on the earth.

I hope you enjoy cooking with these Rancho Gordo products as much as I enjoy growing and presenting them.

-Steve Sando