Slow Food Sonoma County North is helping bring back the Bodega Red potato from the brink of extinction
The lowly potato — rich in calories, minerals, vitamins and protein — is perhaps the most perfect of all pandemic foods, a staple crop that has been eaten for thousands of years in Peru, where more than 4,000 varieties are still cultivated.
The humble spud is easy to grow and store, versatile and affordable in the kitchen and delicious and filling in the stomach.
“Potatoes are like South America’s poster child,” said farmer Zureal Bernier of Bernier Farms in Geyserville. “They’ve really made it into all the cultures of the world. It’s a wonderful food.”
This fall, a local potato with a rich history rooted in the soil of western Sonoma and Marin counties is being harvested by a group of home gardeners and farmers who have joined together to bring back this particular spud from the brink of extinction.
The Bodega Red, a thin-skinned, red potato dry-farmed in the floodplains of rivers and creeks along Bodega and Tomales bays starting in the 1850s, had all but disappeared by the 1970s due to neglect and disease.
But thanks to some investigative digging by the local chapter of Slow Food Sonoma County North, the rare heirloom potato has enjoyed a miraculous comeback over the past decade. This fall, you’ll find it on restaurant and bakery menus as well as at farmers markets across the North Bay.
“Slow Food Sonoma County North began searching for remnants (of the Bodega Red) in 2006 with help from the Bodega Land Trust and the Rancho Bodega Historical Society,” said Barbara Bowman, who is spearheading the Bodega Red’s comeback effort for Slow Food. “We found a handful of small potatoes, anonymously donated, and we sent the plant material to the USDA for analysis.”
The USDA identified the sample as a heretofore unknown potato related to Chilean potato varieties, and the game was afoot. Thanks to lots of people who donated their time and efforts to revive it, the Bodega Red was subsequently cleaned of its blight-causing virus. Then, a dependable source of seed potatoes this year ensured it could be distributed widely to local growers at seed outlets from Healdsburg to Petaluma.
“One of a our biggest challenges has been to find a grower who will provide us with certified seed every spring, but now we found that,” Bowman said. “There’s a wonderful family operation in Stockton. ... The Zuckerman-Heritage Farm is enchanted with the story. They grow their own potatoes, and they’re working with us in order to increase production every year so we can satisfy the demand.”
In spring 2020, there were 4,500 pounds of Bodega Red seed potatoes planted in local gardens and at nearly two dozen family farms, most of which are certified organic or biodynamic. That’s up from 2018, when only about 2,000 pounds were able to be distributed to growers.
A potato on the rise
Zureal Bernier of Bernier Farms, who has been a Slow Food member since 2008, got involved with the spud about 10 years ago and first planted it himself in 2013. Now, it’s the only potato he will grow.
“They’re a good all-around potato, whether it’s for soups, salads or baking,” he said. “They grow really well, even in the hot climate of Geyserville.”
The potato is naturally happy in the cooler coastal areas of Sonoma County, but it can adapt to warmer climates if it’s planted early.
The trick, said Bernier, is to get the potatoes in the ground by March or April so they’re ready to harvest in June or July, before the high heat of the summer. Recently, local Slow Food members have shared the seed with members in Napa and Marin counties, he said.
“It’s been neat, especially in the early years when we opened it up to all kinds of people,” Bernier said. “We started going to the (National) Heirloom Festival and gathered names. ... We were contacting people and really getting it out there.”
This year, Bernier sold some of his Bodega Reds to Quail & Condor Bakery in Healdsburg, where owner Melissa Yanc has been making a Potato Pugliese this summer to showcase the local spud in a whole wheat sourdough loaf.
“For a creamy potato, they have a good structure and they don’t fall apart when you put it in the dough,” said Yanc, who sells her Bodega Red bread at the Healdsburg Farmers Market on Saturdays.
She roasts the potatoes with olive oil and salt until they are fully cooked. Then she adds the cooked potato during the “first turn,” when the dough is folded to strengthen it before it rises a second time. The entire process, from start to finish, takes 48 hours.
‘Texture is their strong point’
Bodega Red is one of only six potatoes believed to have come directly from South America to North America, perhaps in the hands of a Chilean sailor who jumped ship. It is thought to be the predecessor of Luther Burbank’s famed Burbank Red potato.