“A beautiful bowl of glory”: Rancho Gordo’s Steve Sando on beans, trade, and the tortilla project

Steve Sando (right) with Félix Martinez Gomez and his family, near Cuicatlan, Oaxaca. They grow chilhuacle chiles, essential to so many Oaxacan dishes but rare now thanks to several years of disturbed weather patterns.

International trade can wreak havoc on small farmers and the global food culture: impoverishing peasants, destroying old ways of cooking, and reducing biodiversity.  Now and then, however, international trade can have the opposite effect, building up farmers instead of rolling over them, preserving heritage foods instead of flooding the fields with a few varieties from big agribusiness.

Rancho Gordo's Xoxoc Project (pronounced "sho-shoc," a word derived from the prickly pear cactus called xoconostle) is one of these rare positive stories about how trade can help small farmers and food artisans.  (Grist writer Tom Philpott has some excellent pieces, such as this one, about the negative effects of trade on Mexican farmers and Mexican society.)

Gabriel Cortés Garcia and Yunuén Carrillo Quiroz, founders of Xoxoc

The collaboration with the already established Xoxoc company started when Steve Sando, the founder and owner of the Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food company, was on one of his frequent trips to Mexico. Always looking for interesting heirloom beans to plant in California and sell to his devoted customers (who include me), one of his contacts told him that he should meet with the Xoxoc  collaborative. Sando’s contact was right: Xoxoc led him to interesting beans like Zarco, from Quanajuato, and Ayocote Morado, from Hildago. But he realized that his plan to bring beans back as seed for planting in California wasn’t the best approach — importing beans directly from the Mexican farmers would be better. That way, the farmers could get a good price for their crop and continue to plant heirloom varieties, and his company would get a reliable supply of the beans in the near term.  As the project matured, Rancho Gordo added new products to the Xoxoc Project line, including omega-3 rich chia seeds, a Mexican oregano that he calls “oregano indio.” (Although it is probably not related to European oregano, as I explained in a post for Mental Masala.)

The most recent initiative from Rancho Gordo is the tortilla project. Rancho Gordo buys dried heirloom corn from the bean farmers involved in the Xoxoc project, imports it, then has the La Palma tortillaria in San Francisco’s Mission District make fresh tortillas to sell at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and the Rancho Gordo store in Napa. I've tried them several times and they are delicious -- full of corn flavor, lacking that unappetizing chemical aroma emitted by so many commercial brands. And it feels good to be supporting small farmers and heirloom corn varieties.

I first met Steve a few years ago during the infamous Carlo Petrini dust-up in San Francisco (covered by Bonnie at the Ethicurean) and I run into him here and there in the Bay Area at farmers markets, the Eat Real Festival in Oakland, and at his store in Napa. I wanted to learn more about the Xoxoc Project, so I asked Steve some questions via email.

Where do your Mexican farmer-partners live, and what's the terrain like there?

They live in an ex-hacienda in the state of Hidalgo. The closest town is called Chapantongo, not too far from Ixmiquilpan. The land has been ruined by hundreds of years of cattle grazing, and the only thing that seems to grow now are the cactus paddles and their fruit. The locals have a long tradition of making things out of the fruit. Xoxoc took it a step further and made a commercial venture.

The xoconostle look like prickly pears (or tunas) but the seeds are all in the center instead of throughout and the "meat" is very sour; you wouldn't eat it raw. But it's an essential ingredient in dishes like mole de olla [a spicy meat stew] and certain salsas.

How do they typically make a living?

Before me, by making their products with the xoconstle. They'd dry them and make snacks, both sweet and salty. They make jarred salsa and a great marmalade with all the sourness but none of the bitterness of traditional marmalade.

What crops do they grow?

Now? Nothing. They started out by foraging but now they source them from locals.

They are certified organic and they did grow a crop of chiles for their spicy snack because they couldn't find organic chiles from Mexico! But this was a disaster for some reason. I'm not sure why. They only did it once.

How many varieties of corn and beans do they grow in a typical year?

So this is jumping ahead. They were all set for export and I casually asked them if they'd consider exporting beans as well, since I needed them. Their immediate response was that there were no heirloom varieties and why would anyone care anyway? I showed them in their market that there were heirlooms, and it was like a light went off. The Mexicans have been taking heirloom beans for granted as well. They started doing some research and found out in fact that I was right, there are lots of beans and the market was dying as everyone was buying pintos from Walmart.

Zarco beans

So we go to markets, talk to the growers and hopefully establish a relationship. Not every Mexican small farmer is right for this. It takes some moxie and nerve. Normally when an indigenous Mexican is in a business deal with a plump gringo like me, he's not going to come out ahead. So I don't take it personally, but I do stay behind the scenes until the relationship is established.

Normally each farmer grows two, or maybe three beans that they save seed with. Each bean requires different care and I think it would be hard to do more than three. They also grow one or two varieties of corn. We now have about 10 farmers.

Do they rotate varieties from year to year or have favorites?

It’s best to grow what you know and love, so they don't tend to rotate.

Who usually buys their crops?

Other than for their own use, they sell at the tianguis or mercados [local markets]. And hopefully sell out.

And can you tell us roughly how much more money they get through the Xoxoc project than through the normal channels?

We're paying about what they'd make in the market, but without any risk. We'll buy the whole show. The result has been that they seem to expand. They like going to market, so they add acreage for us.

If they were to sell a bulk amount to a distributor, they would expect to make roughly half or less. But most distributors aren't interested in heirlooms, and more and more sales are being done in supermarkets and superstores, so it's key that we continue this.

At first we had a lot of resistance, and we couldn’t figure it out. We finally got one of them to speak up and he said, “If we sell all our stock to you, what will we have for us?” We hadn’t made it clear we want them to save seed and do this year after year, and of course save enough for them to eat as well.

One of the coolest things was picking up our first order from a farmer named Abel. We arrived, and all the beans were packed and everything looked great. We asked to confirm the price and what was the total going to be. I think we had a ton or so. He hesitated for a minute and then he asked his daughter for a calculator. His hands were shaking really badly and he was almost punching the numbers as if the calculator were broken. He just couldn’t believe what he was seeing was his total. He finally had to hand the calculator over to his daughter, who confirmed his price, and we paid them. I’m sure he wanted us out of there as soon as possible in case we changed our minds!

What is their diet like?

Gabriel Cortes Garcia chops up the meat from a Hidalgo-style pit barbacoa with his Aunt Lupe and family cook Maria.

It depends on the grower and the region. With one farmer, he knew we were coming and lunch was a bowl of beans, a bowl of consommé, a salad of nopales [cactus paddles], salsas and fresh tortillas made from corn they had grown. Incredibly healthy and delicious! Another grower killed a goat and had a BBQ.

How do they cook and season their beans?

Almost all of them cook in a favorite clay pot. They don't tend to soak. Onion, garlic, beans, a spoonful of manteca [lard] and water. That's it.

Have you considered having a recipe exchange with the Xoxoc partners, perhaps sharing some of their cooking methods in your newsletter or on the blog?

We could but in general, beans are always there, cooked as I described. There aren't a lot of recipes. You can refry them or make a soup but in general, it's just a beautiful bowl of glory.

What would your Xoxoc partners think of fusion tacos, like the Korean-influenced tacos with kim chi?

The Xoxoc people would be open-minded but secretly not like the idea. The farmers would run the other way! But I met Roy Choi of the Kogi taco truck in LA when we both won the Bon Appetit Hot 10 Award in 2009, and he loved the idea of noodling around with the heirloom varieties. Nothing has come of it yet, but we do keep in touch.

Do the partners in the Xoxoc project eat burritos?

They wouldn't know what one was, to be honest. It's really rare to see flour tortillas in most of Mexico.

Do you know the story behind the corn varieties? How long have they been growing them?

The corn importation is pretty new to me. I got the idea after visiting Itanoni in Oaxaca. Amado Rameriz Leyva supports a lot of local Oaxacan farmers and co-ops growing dozens of ancient corn varieties. He's a very smart man, and corn is his religion. Me, I just want a tasty tortilla. We met our farmers in the markets, and there's one is a neighbor at the hacienda. But I have to be honest, I can tell yellow from white from red corn, but the varieties within each type aren't quite as distinct. Certainly not as different as beans. But the corn is fresh, grown well and it's important to save the different varieties for reasons other than flavor. But you get someone like Amado who can tell so much about the corn, and it's humbling.

Originally, my plan was to open a tortilleria, or tortilla factory, here in Napa. I called the health department and asked if I’d have similar problems as when I moved Rancho Gordo across town. It took months and thousands of dollars I didn’t have, and in the end, they made a mountain of mistakes. The head of the health department told me he’d give me the same excellent service they offer everyone, and I said, No thanks! I can’t afford that kind of “excellence”. Then I thought who makes the best tortillas in the Bay Area? Arguably, it’s La Palma on 24th Street.

So I called them up and introduced myself and now they’re making our tortillas for us. It’s very nice because we have a great Mexican family involved now. They’ve done a great job and I love working with them.

Have you had any interest in the Xoxoc heirloom corn from restaurants that make their own tortillas or masa?

Yes, but we’re proceeding very slowly. Right now you can only get tortillas on Saturday at the Ferry Plaza. I love this project and don’t want to blow it by growing too fast.

One of the Xoxoc products is a Mexican oregano. What's special about this particular oregano? How do your Xoxoc partners use it?

This is an oregano from the Husateca region of Hidalgo. These guys were foraging it but discovered that they were depleting it, so they started a co-op to cultivate it. They were VERY poor and the idea to do this is pretty wild. I wouldn't have invested in it! But they went ahead and now it's working. It's earthier than other varieties of Mexican oregano, and apparently there are health properties that are desirable. All I care about is the flavor. It's great with garlic and olive oil rubbed on a pork tenderloin!

We sent a sample to Per Se in NY [Thomas Keller's Michelin three-star restaurant], and I forgot to send a note. They came back and ordered four pounds. Of oregano! I love the idea of this scrappy group of guys: I can hear their singing and still taste the food they served in my mind, and their product in the most important restaurant in NY! It makes me very happy.

Are you aware of anything similar to Rancho Gordo or the Xoxoc project happening inside Mexico? Are Mexicans seeking tortillas made from fresh masa over ones made from dried masa? Are they rediscovering heirloom beans?

Speaking of Mexico City, they took the beans for granted too. There's a long ugly story, but there were chefs there who were accusing me of stealing their culture with the beans. Then we started importing clay pots and this made them indignant. Add the corn and it turns to outrage. Sin mais no hay pais! [“without corn there is no country”] Of course, these are chefs who buy everything from a central market and would probably be surprised to know much of their food is coming from China. They weren't even giving the idea lip service, let alone buying it. The whole thing is very silly; I do understand I am a foreigner so I try and step lightly. I also made up with all my worst critics and there was even a good article in Mexico City's Universal newspaper called "Steve Sando Puts the Beans in the Pot!"

Xoxoc has added the beans to their line list and now you can buy Rancho Gordo beans in Mexico. I don't want to push it, so I'm just offering the Mexican-grown bean but there's a certain satisfaction in selling our product in Mexico.

As for other groups or projects, I don’t know of any. There are a lot of well-intentioned nonprofits and I think they have their place, it’s just not for me. I go to a few meetings and end up screaming, “Shut up and eat!” I love making things happen, and luckily I have a platform where I can.

Are Mexico's drug trafficking troubles affecting the farmers?

There was an incident in Tula last year, but nothing directly. Can I just say that there wouldn't be a drug problem in Mexico if we weren't taking the drugs? It's our problem, too, and it drives me crazy when we shake our heads and say "Poor Mexico can't get it together!" Mexicans in general aren't big druggies.

Crime and violence in Mexico are a lot more exciting and "foreign" to us but I would love to see a per capita comparison of crime here and there. I think we'd do pretty poorly in the crime department.

Rancho Gordo's beans, herbs, and other products are available for mail order on the website, at their retail shop in Napa, at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (Saturday only) and at a small number of retailers across the country.

All photographs from Steve Sando and Rancho Gordo, used with permission.

6 Responsesto ““A beautiful bowl of glory”: Rancho Gordo’s Steve Sando on beans, trade, and the tortilla project”

  1. Jeanette-Padilla King says:

    I recently had some Chestnut Lima, and Rattlesnake beans from two girls that sell at the Tucson Farmers market, I could not believe the taste, they were the best beans I had ever tasted. I come from the Pinto Clan, but I just might have to cross the river and check out all the "old" new varieties. I'll check out your web site and see if I can't get some drop shipped.

    Thanks, Jeanette

  2. naidre says:

    I've been eating Rancho Gordo beans for a while now. They have the most amazing varieties and I have enjoyed learning about them and the culture. Their cook book is lovely- every recipe is a winner. I now eat very little meat and love, love, love cooking their beans.

  3. Sofia says:

    I think that some Mexicans would be angry at Steve because to begin, some people are just fed up with anything from there, two: a lot of united states citizens have come here and abused the indigenous people for their profit,as said, and three: it is annoying to see foreigners do what you should be doing. Let's face it, a lot of Mexicans, I'd say MOST have no vision (I'm half Mexican and half U.S. citizen, so relax).

    And by the way... do you have an idea what a profit Steve is getting?! $5.50 for a lb. translate $64.00 pesos (for LESS than HALF a kilo). He probably is buying 500 grams at $5 pesos, or $.46 cents!! People underrate their products in Mexico. Any educated person can see this. Crafts are totally underpriced. I've seen women sell handmade ponchos for $200 pesos when a 'gringo store' sells them for 300 dollars. You do the math.

    So yes, the farmers get a secure buyer and you are promoting the cultivation of heirloom seeds, but this is FAR away from fair trade.

    Oh wait, what was number two?

  4. Ave Sofia says:

    Wow, I can't believe ethicurean is ethic but restricts comments. Freedom of speech? Nonsense, right? In my previous comment I said nothing offensive. Just food for thought. This is ridiculous. I hope you know how bad you look. I know you'll delete this one too.

  5. Actually Ave Sofia, our comment notifier was misbehaving, and we didn't realize you left one.

  6. Steve Sando says:

    Sophia, I think you are sincere so I won't blow my top.

    Before making assumptions about what I pay (which you are WAY OFF), do you think I take a cart and load up on beans in Mexico and then sell them here at a huge markup? What do you think goes into importing a product on a small scale like this? How much does it cost to ship beans? How many government agencies need to be paid? How much? Brokers? Rising gas costs? How much does it cost to clean them to make them palatable for the American market? How about the labor of bagging them here in the US? What happens if they don't sell? What happens if they arrive with nasty bugs? What does it cost to run a business like mine....oh wait! You have no idea!

    I'm sorry if I'm defensive but I am not the enemy and my work is very personal. I break bread, or rather tortillas, with my farmers and it's a rare situation where everyone seems to be winning and are happy.