By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
NAPA, Calif. -- Grapevines carpet the landscape. There seems to be no one without at least a few rows of cabernet or syrah. But in Steve Sando's back yard, all that is growing are beans: Black Zebras, Red Limas and Parraleños, a chocolate-colored bean that Sando, the founder of bean company Rancho Gordo, discovered on a trip to Puebla, Mexico. In all, Sando has 15 heirloom varieties on trial. If he's lucky, one will grow well enough and taste good enough to be sold commercially.
Sando admits he can be a little obsessive. His first love was jazz; one room of his ranch-style home is lined, floor to ceiling, with thousands of CDs. Next it was online marketing. Now his passion is heirloom beans with romantic names such as Good Mother Stallard, Mayacoba and Yellow Indian Woman. Sando began selling heirlooms in 2001, and it wasn't long before they became favorites at such top restaurants as CityZen in Washington and the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. This month saw the publication of his "Heirloom Beans" (Chronicle Books), a cookbook that he hopes will get beans the respect they deserve.
Beans, even heirloom varieties, are no easy sell. In America, according to food historian Ken Albala, beans have long been stigmatized as a cheap protein for people too poor to afford meat. It doesn't help that canned ones tend to be mushy, while dried varieties take hours to cook, something that doesn't jibe with the American apotheosis of the 30-minute meal. "If I'm not there to sell them, they tend not to sell that well," Sando says. "People don't really want to buy beans. But they do like the stories, and that's how we sell Rancho Gordo beans."
Rancho Gordo is a fourth career for Sando, 48. And though it wasn't intentional, each of his previous jobs helped prepare him for his 21st-century bean crusade. Out of college, he worked as a salesman for clothing company Esprit, which taught him how to market a product. Next, he talked his way into a job as the host of a radio show called "Mr. Lucky" in Milan, where he played American jazz and, in mangled Italian, explained how to make classic cocktails. (Part of the schtick was holding a cocktail shaker up to the microphone and playing a tape of cocktail chatter so it sounded like a real party.)
Back in the States, his Mr. Lucky persona led Sando to start writing a music catalogue of his favorite CDs. Soon, he was publishing the zine online, which led to seven years as a Web designer, which taught him about online sales, which led to severe burnout, which led to a new interest in food and agriculture.
Sando's first idea was to grow heirloom tomatoes. And though he'd "never even grown a houseplant," he planted 30 varieties in his back yard. Most tomatoes can't be harvested until late summer, however. So when a fellow farmer came to him for help with marketing heirloom beans, he agreed. "I thought I'd do it till the tomatoes ripened," Sando remembers. "And then I realized: This makes so much more sense."
Beans were an appealing business for several reasons. They are relatively inexpensive to grow: When the beans are ripe, the water supply is cut off and they are left to dry on the plant, then collected with a combine. High-quality beans were an untapped niche; the dried beans on supermarket shelves can be up to seven years old, Sando says. Rancho Gordo sells all its beans within one year of harvest.
Equally important to Sando was that beans are a North American food with a distinct culinary heritage, a way to rediscover American traditions rather than simply copy European cuisines. Indeed, Sando never tires of pointing out that many beans that Americans think of as European have roots in North America. The flageolet bean, a must with leg of lamb in France, originally hails from Mexico. The borlotti, or cranberry bean, a foundation of many northern Italian dishes, is from Colombia.
Sando quickly realized that he didn't have a knack for agriculture. "The year I grew tomatoes, any fool could have grown them," he says. But he did have marketing skills. He soon contracted with several growers in Northern California to produce the beans and concentrated on making over their image from a Depression-era staple to a chef-worthy ingredient.
For inspiration, Sando turned to one of his obsessions, old Mexican movie posters, from which he took strong lettering and bright colors. The Rancho Gordo mascot, a sexy woman licking her lips, is meant to tease and be a little mysterious. (The name Rancho Gordo, which translates to "Fat Ranch," actually means nothing at all. It was a Web address Sando had registered when he once considered writing a book about how to lose weight eating Mexican food.)
Heirloom beans' biggest selling point is their flavor. "I work a lot with U.C. Davis," a leading agricultural science university in Northern California, Sando says. "They have this big bean day where they talk about uniformity, disease resistance, size and yield. And you ask about what they taste like -- how it affected the flavor -- and they say they haven't cooked them. After four years of a bean trial, they've never cooked one pot.
"That's what's wrong with American food, in a way. They see it as a science game. They don't see it as food."
In contrast, Sando knows that each heirloom bean variety has a distinct taste and texture. Rio Zape, purple-black-colored beans that first turned Sando on to bean cooking, have a chocolaty coffee flavor. Vallarta beans, Sando's first sale to the French Laundry, have a thick skin but are creamy and buttery inside. "Steve isn't selling 30 varieties for the sake of it. There are nuances to each one," says CityZen chef Eric Ziebold, who has Rancho Gordo's flageolets and pigeon peas on his menu.
In the past five years, Sando has collected seeds from Seed Savers Exchange, which preserves rare seeds, and traveled Mexico in search of new beans to bring to market. He finds many in Oaxaca, which is to food in Mexico what Bologna is in Italy, Sando says. He also has added hot sauces, dried corn, grains such as quinoa, and chili peppers to his line.
The business has developed something of a cult following. In 2007, Rancho Gordo had 150 acres under cultivation and sold 150,000 pounds of beans, up from 300 in 2001. This year, Sando predicts he'll sell 250,000 pounds.
If Sando has one message, it's that beans are versatile and easy to cook. Though he says he's "obsessed" with Mexican food (his collection of cookbooks includes dozens on Mexican cuisine), his new book also offers recipes inspired by India, Italy and Morocco. They all start with the same instructions: First, soak the beans in enough cold water to cover them by an inch. Sando soaks his for two to six hours, but with fresh, dried beans -- something that's not as oxymoronic as it sounds -- that's not always necessary. CityZen's Ziebold, for example, skips the soak and simply simmers them until they are tender.
Next, heat some oil or other fat and saute carrots, onions and celery, a classic mirepoix. Sando likes to uses one of the clay pots he has collected from Mexico, Colombia and Morocco (yet another obsession) because they heat evenly and add flavor. Then add the beans and water and bring to a boil, which helps break down the beans and makes them creamy. Turn down the heat and let the pot simmer until the beans are done. Sando's beans generally need to cook for one to two hours, far less time than older beans.
Despite Rancho Gordo's growth, Sando worries that there's a limit to how much the market for beans can expand. Although food mavens love the taste and diversity, some people will never be willing to spend several hours cooking.
And so, characteristically, Sando has a new plan: tortillas. Next spring, he plans to open a retail shop in Napa that sells homemade tortillas made with heirloom corn, such as Oaxaca's blue corn and Hidalgo's red. And if it's a success, he could start opening shops across the country.
"If I can get people excited about corn and tortillas in the same way we have about beans, we could begin rethinking what it means to eat like an American," he says.
Or, at the very least, give customers another good way to eat those beans.