Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo, had no agricultural background before he got into growing beans. Now, he has over 25 varieties, from just the West Coast. Prior to this, he was a web designer and a clothing store sales rep. We wonder, what would motivate a man with no gardening experience to become passionate about heirloom beans?
How Rancho Gordo Started
One August, Steve was shopping for tomatoes in Napa, California, only to find there were few options available. The only tomatoes he could get his hands on were these hard and pale ones imported from a hothouse in Europe. In contrast to heirloom tomatoes, hothouse tomatoes are much less nutritious because they are grown in greenhouses. Frustrated by the lack of fresh produce, Steve decided to grow his own tomatoes, which eventually led to beans.
The first bean Steve grew was the purple Rio Zape, which to his surprise, had hints of coffee and chocolate when cooked. That experience alone was enough to convince Steve to share his discovery with everyone else.
At first, it was hard to make business selling his dried beans at the farmers’ market. Many people would mistaken his coloful beans as candies. Others associated beans with unappealing canned ones they found in supermarkets so high quality beans were a foreign concept to them. Thankfully, someone understood the potential Steve saw in these beans. One day, Thomas Keller, head chef and owner of the famous French Laundry restaurant, dropped by Steve’s stand at the Yountville’s farmers market. He was fascinated the Vallarta bean, a yellow bean that was actually on the brink of extinction. Soon everyone got excited about Steve’s beans and before he knew it, he opened up a store inside San Francisco’s Ferry Building.
What are Heirloom Beans?
Heirloom beans are grown from pure seeds, which are passed down for generations without genetic modifications. They often require more labor and produce lower yields than their mass-produced counterparts. However, their results are well worth the effort. These beans come in unique sizes, shapes, colors, textures, and more importantly, flavors.
Over the years, Steve has travelled to Mexico and parts of Central and South America in search for rare legumes he can plant in his backyard. If he ends up liking them, he will send them to his network of growers throughout California, Oregon, Washington and New Mexico. A lot of American farmers are hesitant to cultivate his beans because the volume is so small. However, Steve is adamnant about preserving the quality of these beans even if it costs him more.
He also shares his seed findings on Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit dedicated to the heirloom movement.
Steve Sando’s Tips for Heirloom Beans
Some people avoid buying heirloom beans altogether because of the “complexity” of cooking them. However, Steve’s method for preparing these beans are so simple, you won’t believe it.
First off, while soaking the beans will speed up the cooking process, it is not a necessary step. Usually, the older the beans, the longer the cooking time, which can be reduced if with soaking. Thankfully, Rancho Gordo’s beans are less than 2 years old, with majority being less than 1. They are best eaten within six months, but can be kept past 5 years if stored in dry, cool places.
Steve recommends adding a little bit of oil, some aromatics, and water when cooking the beans. These beans shine on their own and any additional broth may mask their inherent flavors. If you want to add salt, you’ll have to do it halfway through cooking, which gives the beans enough time to absorb the salt.
Overall, Steve wants to let people know that beans are not as much of a mystery as people think. They’re not that brown-ish, mushy side dish that you avoid touching during family dinners. They are fine ingredients and it is about time they get the credit they deserve.