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Monday, December 12, 2011

Rancho Gordo Partners Up with Diana Kennedy to Import Rare Oaxacan Chiles

Posted By on Mon, Dec 12, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo. - WORKMAN BOOKS
  • Workman Books
  • Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo.

Steve Sando, Rancho Gordo founder and author of Heirloom Beans, just returned from a two-week road trip around Mexico with legendary cookbook author Diana Kennedy and Gael Garcia Bernal's mother, a telenovela star. They were hunting for rare Oaxacan chiles -- and more specifically, farmers who would be willing to grow them for export. 

"Bernal and her husband are filmmakers who are working on a documentary about Kennedy's life," Sando explains. "If you're wanting to do business with farmers in rural Oaxaca, though, it's probably not the best way to come into the town with a gringo, Diana Kennedy, and a couple of TV stars. It was really kind of wild."

Rancho Gordo is famous in its own right, of course, for growing photogenic and flavorful heirloom beans in northern California. Over the course of the past several years, Sando has taken on the role of helping Mexican farmers preserve their heirloom beans as well. Working with a Mexican company called Xoxoc, he contracts out with Mexican farmers to grow beans, corn, and herbs for him, which is how he met up with the cookbook author.

Kennedy, author of Oaxaca al Gusto and a gastronomic preservationist, is helping Sando identify and find rare chiles -- hard to find in Oaxaca City, almost impossible to locate in North America -- that make Oaxacan dishes possible to cook in the United States. Not only that, Sando needs the chiles, which are susceptible to white fly larva, to be grown without tons of fertilizers and pesticides. 

Yellow chilhuacles. - WHATAMIEATING/FLICKR

Most of the road trip was a bust. "But the good news is that we now have great farmers in the Cañada Valley who are growing black, yellow, and red chilhuacles," Sando says. "They're incredible, nutty and fruity at the same time." The yellow chilhuacle in particular is required for mole amarillo; most Mexicans now make an ersatz version with turmeric, which is nowhere near as good. Sando and Kennedy are also finding sources for costeno chiles and pasillas de Oaxaca, a fruity smoked chile that is kind of like -- but better than -- chipotles. (When SFoodie traveled to Oaxaca a few years ago, we brought back a huge sack of the pasillas and rationed them tightly.)

With Xoxoc serving as exporters, a first, small batch of the "Diana Kennedy Collection" chiles should arrive in California this spring, and when the new farmers ramp up production, there will be even more coming in the fall. Sando won't be able to sell the chiles at his Ferry Plaza farmers market stand -- they're imported, after all -- but they will be available at the website and his Napa retail store.

What is coming to the Ferry Plaza market this Saturday is Rancho Gordo's heirloom-corn tortillas, made by La Palma with heirloom blue, red, or white corn grown in Oaxaca. If you want some of the tortillas, you can pre-order by emailing

As for stories of Diana Kennedy's legendary temper? You'll have to ask Gordo yourself, because he's not telling tales out of school. But after spending two weeks with Kennedy, he's still a fan. "She goes out of her way to find these moles," he says. "She'll go in to an obscure diner in some tiny town that looks downtrodden, and find a woman cooking some dish. No one appreciates her, but she knows how to make this dish just her way. And when Diana talks to the woman, she makes her feel like queen for a day. It's amazing."

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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