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Slow Food Sonoma County North is helping bring back the Bodega Red potato from the brink of extinction

Bodega Reds see a rosy future, thanks to Slow Food Sonoma County North.|

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.

Some farms, like Preston Vineyards & Farm and Bernier Farms in Healdsburg, harvest their Bodega Reds as small new potatoes in June and July. Others, such as Shone Farm in Forestville and Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg, are harvesting them this month as a storage potato that will last over the winter.

“I think texture is their strong point,” said Front Porch Farm Vegetable Manager Eliza Milio. “They really hold moisture and don’ get dry. ... They really hold up in all types of cooking.”

Milio planted them in April and plans to dig them up sometime in late September, when they reach softball size. Before they are picked, she will cut the water to cure the skins, so they will store better through the winter and into spring.

“A lot of varieties don’t have a great story from this area,” she said. “That’s a compelling reason for me to grow it .”

Connor Murphy, the new manager of the Santa Rosa Junior College’s Shone Farm in Forestville, harvested his Bodega Reds in late August with a potato digger mounted to a tractor hitch.

“If you plant them closer together, they tend to be smaller,” he said. “The ones we were digging today were the size of large apples.”

He also likes the story behind the Bodega Red, especially since the farm educates the next crop of farmers.

“The story is the main thing that’s exciting about this and helping people feel like there’s a connection to a place,” he said. “Potatoes are amazing. You can grow them in so many ways. I’ve seen people grow them in straw bales and leaf piles.”

With the pandemic, the Shone Farm products are currently available through its online store (srjc-shone-farm.square.site/s/shop), with pickup at the farm from 1 to 4 p.m. Fridays.

Other educational farms, such as various school gardens in the county and the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, have been growing Bodega Reds.

At the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens in Santa Rosa, Culinary Farmer Tucker Taylor planted the Bodega Red in his Slow Food garden. Culinary Director Justin Wangler has been using the rare potato in food pairings.

“The balance between starchy and waxy is great,“ Wangler said. “We find it is a very versatile and a really good boiling potato. It holds it shape nicely when diced and simmered and is great for salads.”

Recently, Wangler and his team simmered the potatoes whole, then served them smashed with a nice olive oil, crunchy salt and fun toppings such as boquerones, lemon zest and parsley.

“The best way to prepare them is to slice them thin and fry into potato chips,” Wangler said. “They get incredibly crunchy and have a super potato-y flavor.”

Bodega Red feeds the hungry

Marie Giacalone of Cloverdale, a member of Slow Food, has been growing the Bodega Red for a few years and has finally outsmarted the gophers by planting them in a giant wire cage that goes 18 inches into the ground.

“I thought that a potato was a potato, honestly,” she said. “But I”m going through all this trouble because they really are worth it. ... They are really special.”

In the kitchen, she tends to use the comeback potato in simple preparations that showcase the pure flavor of the potato.

“I like to roast or boil and mash them with the skins,” she said. “I never take the skins off.”

The Slow Food Northern Sonoma County chapter also grows a communal crop of Bodega Reds at Gradek Ranch in Healdsburg. Those potatoes are often served at the chapter’s annual Bodega Red Festa, canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We gave them to Sonoma Family Meals,” Giacalone said. “We were sad that we couldn’t have our festa, but we’re glad someone is eating them.”

The Farm to Fight Hunger in Windsor also grew Bodega Reds this year for the first time, Bowman said. They donated them to provide food during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Shone Farm will use some of the Bodega Reds for its Feed the Bears program, a food-security organization on the campus of SRJC.

Now that the Bodega Red has been granted Presidium status by Slow Food International as a very important crop in need of protection, Bowman plans to keep expanding the distribution to more home gardeners and farmers.

“We want more activity in Marin because it was originally grown around Tomales Bay and in the Chileno Valley,” she said. “It has a long history, and it belongs here.”

This is a casual recipe from Marie Giacalone, who was inspired to come up with the dish by an Italian food blog. You need to adapt the recipe to the amount of potato and eggplant you have on hand. She suggests choosing eggplant that somewhat matches the circumference of the potatoes.

Bodega Red and Eggplant al Forno

Serving size depends on how much you make

Equal portions of:

Bodega Red potatoes, sliced ¼-inch thick

Eggplant, sliced ¼-inch thick

Salt and pepper

Dried oregano

Extra virgin olive oil

Diced pancetta (or diced bacon)

Finely diced onion

Grated Pecorino Romano (or any good grating cheese)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Put the eggplant and potato slices into a large bowl. Season with salt, pepper and oregano to taste. Toss with enough olive oil to coat each slice.

Coat the bottom of an ovenproof casserole with olive oil, and fan out alternating slices of potato and eggplant until your dish is full. Tuck in the diced pancetta, onion and grated cheese between the layers.

Drizzle the top with olive oil and a final dash of the dried oregano.

Bake at 350 degrees, covered for 20 minutes. Then bake uncovered for an additional 20 minutes.

This super-simple recipe is from Justin Wangler, executive chef of Jackson Family Wines. Boquerones are Spanish anchovies in vinegar.

Bodega Red Potatoes with Anchovies and Olive Oil

Serves 4 as an appetizer

4 Bodega Red Potatoes, similar size (6 to 8 ounces each)

4 tablespoons kosher salt

20 boquerones (or Ortiz brand anchovies)

20 flatleaf parsley leaves, picked

4 tablespoons olive oil

Zest of one lemon (use a zester)

Sel Gris (coarse sea salt)

Cracked black pepper

Thoroughly wash potatoes with a vegetable brush. Place in medium pot and cover with water by at least 2 inches. Add salt and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cover partially with a lid and simmer until tender, about 20 to 30 minutes or until you can poke a knife through with little resistance.

Using a slotted spoon, carefully remove potatoes and let rest for 5 minutes. Place potatoes on a plate, cover with a small piece of parchment and gently press potatoes to smash them.

Top each potato with 5 anchovies and 5 parsley leaves and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Garnish with lemon zest and season with a crunchy salt and fresh ground pepper.

Pairing suggestion: A full-bodied chardonnay such as the Kendall-Jackson, Jackson Estate Fulton Chardonnay.

This recipe is from Elissa Rubin-Mahon of Slow Food Sonoma County North, who has helped spearhead the Bodega Red’s comeback. She has been in touch with The International Potato Center in Peru, which studies and maintains genetic seeds and provides seed material worldwide to help preserve potatoes.

Gratin of Bodega Red Potatoes with Fennel and Chanterelles

2 pounds Bodega Red potatoes

Unsalted butter

½ cup chopped shallots

4 ounces chanterelles, cleaned and torn

1 medium head fennel, horizontally sliced, thinly

1 cup (or slightly more) heavy cream (see note below)

Salt to taste

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Steam or boil potatoes until partly cooked, but not tender. Drain off water, peel potatoes and set aside.

Melt some butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté until limp but not totally transparent. Add the chanterelles and salt to taste and cook until the mushrooms have started to give off juice. Set aside.

Butter a 1- to 1½-quart shallow baking dish. Slice and arrange half of the potatoes in the bottom of the dish. Top the potatoes with the mushroom mixture, then layer the sliced fennel. Sprinkle lightly with salt, if desired. Slice and arrange remaining potatoes on top. Pour the heavy cream evenly over the potatoes. Melt butter and toss with the bread crumbs. Sprinkle the bread crumbs evenly over the gratin.

Place dish in the preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork and the bread crumbs have browned.

Note: The added cream may be necessary if your mushrooms lack moisture.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

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