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Sonoma County potato reborn

Foggy River Farm owner Emmett Hopkins, carrying his 7-month old daughter, Gillian, digs for Bodega Red potatoes at the farm in Healdsburg on Thursday, July 11, 2013.

BETH SCHLANKER/ PD
Published: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 22, 2013 at 10:46 p.m.

This harvest season, a handful of Sonoma County farmers are starting to harvest an historic potato with deep roots in the past but a fragile future.

Among them are Emmett Hopkins of Foggy River Farm, who planted 30 pounds of the endangered Bodega Red seed potatoes in his silty, loam soil in order to help rescue them from the brink of extinction.

“The Bodega Reds are by far the most vigorous out there. ... The plants are big and bushy,” he said. “If they do well for us, we'll keep growing them because we believe in helping to preserve them.”

Back in the 1850s, when potatoes were one of Sonoma County's first cash crops, the Bodega Red was among the spuds shipped from Sonoma County to San Francisco and beyond to feed the Gold Rush miners and entrepreneurs.

But a funny thing happened on its way to the 21st century. By the 1970s, the Bodega Red had all but disappeared from the potato fields of Bodega and Tomales, its susceptibility toward blight exacerbated by poor farming practices.

Thanks to Slow Food Sonoma County North, a local chapter of Slow Food (an international nonprofit created to promote alternatives to fast food), the Bodega Red was placed on Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste a few years ago in an effort to save its thin red skin for posterity.

The Ark of Taste catalogs foods in danger of extinction, then promotes them to ensure they remain in production.

“In order to get onto the Ark of Taste, it has to taste good,” said Elissa Rubin-Mahon of Forestville, who spearheaded the effort to bring the creamy potato back to the table.

Along the way, all kinds of experts have weighed in, providing plot twists worthy of a suspense novel.

The tale began several years ago when Rubin-Mahon put out a call to people who may be growing the potato in their garden. Eventually, an anonymous donor stepped forward with a few tiny tubers.

“What we got was the equivalent of 5 or 6 potatoes the size of your pinky,” she said. “They were given to the Bodega Land Trust.”

The potatoes were sent to Dr. Chuck Brown of the USDA Research Service in Washington for genetic fingerprinting. Then the plot thickened.

More than 6,000 years ago, potatoes were first cultivated in the motherland of the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes mountains. Spanish explorers arrived in 1532 and carried the tubers back to Spain. Eventually, they spread across Europe and into North America.

According to Brown, however, a few potatoes made their way directly up the West Coast, without the detour.

“He had located five others, and the Bodega Red was a potential sixth,” she said. “He did the genetics and found that it came from Chile, probably in the 1840s.”

How the Bodega Red actually arrived in the North Bay is the subject of speculation. What Rubin-Mahon can say for sure is that it was farmed in Bodega Bay.

“I do know that the potato was grown on the flood plain of Salmon Creek,” she said. “Spud Point is named for a barge of potatoes that went down there.”

The Bodega Red also was on the radar of famed horticulturalist Luther Burbank, who is thought to have used it as parent stock for his Burbank Red potato.

“Luther Burbank wrote about it,” she said. “He talks about whole fields going down in a matter of days, because of potato blight.”

To help re-establish the endangered potato in the region, Rubin-Mahon and Slow Food Sonoma County North raised money to have it regenerated, minus the virus.

“Pure Potato in Washington state did a tissue culture,” she said. “They grow them in the Petri dish, then they cut out anything that doesn't belong.”

In 2012, Slow Food Sonoma County North started giving the improved Bodega Red seed potatoes to farmers in the area.

Zuriel Bernier of Healdsburg's Bernier Farms planted four beds this year, which he has already started to harvest and sell at farmers markets. He figures he has enough to last about two months.

“I've had them baked and roasted,” he said. “I think they are a good, multi-purpose potato.”

Like the other members of Slow Food Sonoma County North, Bernier would like to see the Bodega Red survive and become self-sufficient.

“That means it's worthwhile to grow, the public will look for it and enjoy it, and it can become an upward spiral of supply and demand,” he said. “That's what will bring it back.”

This recipe is from Elissa Rubin-Mahon. The salad would serve as an appetizer for four, or a dinner for two. You may substitute 4 ounces sliced smoked salmon for the gravlax.

Dilled Bodega Red Potato and Gravlax Salad

Makes 2 servings

For Fast Cure Gravlax

¼ pound local King salmon fillet, in thin slices

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon raw sugar

— Fresh ground black pepper to taste

— Dill sprigs

½ tablespoon Aquavit or gin

For the potato salad:

1 pound small Bodega Red new potatoes

— Salt to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill sprigs

¼ cup finely diced shallot

For the dressing:

1½-2 tablespoons hot German mustard

½ teaspoon brown mustard seeds heated in a skillet until they start to pop (optional)

1 tablespoon raw sugar

1½ tablespoons cider vinegar

2-3 tablespoons mild flavored oil such as canola

— Salt to taste

— Butter lettuce leaves

For fast cure gravlax:

In a mortar or mini food processor grind the salt, sugar and pepper until it is fairly fine.

Sprinkle half of mixture on a plate, with a few dill sprigs evenly spaced.

Carefully lay the slices of salmon over the salt-sugar mixture and the dill.

Sprinkle remaining salt-sugar mixture evenly over the salmon slices and add a few more sprigs of dill.

Drizzle the Aquavit over the fish and cover with plastic wrap.

Put a flat plate or pan lid on top of the fish for weight. Allow the salmon to cure in the refrigerator for a minimum of one hour up to 4 hours.

For potato salad:

Cut potatoes in pieces so that they are about the same size, with their peel. Put in a steamer basket and sprinkle with kosher salt to taste. Steam over high heat until you can pierce pieces with a sharp knife, being careful to keep potatoes firm.

For the dressing:

Put the mustard, vinegar, sugar and mustard seeds in a small bowl. Wisk the mixture to combine. Continue to wisk the mixture while drizzling the oil into the dressing to emulsify.

To assemble the salad:

While the potatoes are still warm, cut into bite-sized pieces and put into a bowl. Add the shallot. Carefully combine the shallot with the potatoes, and chopped dill. Add the dressing, a tablespoon at a time, until the salad is lightly coated. Don't add too much so you can taste the potato distinctly. Adjust salt if desired.

An additional bit of dill to add to the remaining dressing. Put a butter lettuce leaf on each plate and divide the potato salad between each.

Loosely coil the salmon slices on top of the potato salad, with a bit of mustard dressing on top.

Serve with lemon slices and home pickled beets, if you wish.

This recipe is from Niki Ford, culinary director of Shed in Healdsburg, which will serve a Bodega Red Sunday Supper at 7 p.m. Aug. 18. Shed owners Doug Lipon and Cindy Daniels have planted 100 pounds of Bodega Red Potatoes at their HomeFarm.

“Lovage is an herb with a wild and bewitching celery-like flavor,” Ford said. “At HomeFarm, Bodega Red potatoes and lovage grow near to each other and meet again on the plate in this delicious little salad.”

Bodega Red Potatos with Anchovy, Capers and Lovage

Makes 2 pounds

2 pounds Bodega Red potatos

1 lemon, juiced

— Sea Salt

6 anchovy fillets

— Extra Virgin Olive oil

— Black pepper

— Capers

— Chopped Parsley

— Chopped lovage or celery leaves

Peel and slice about 2 pounds of Bodega Red potatoes into 1/3-inch rounds. Gently boil the sliced potatoes in salted water until they are tender, approximately 5-7 minutes. With a slotted spoon or skimmer, carefully transfer the cooked potatoes to a cookie sheet to cool. When the potatoes are no longer hot, but still warm, lay them slightly shingled, onto a platter. Squeeze one whole lemon over the potatoes and sprinkle them with sea salt.

Cut 6 anchovy fillets into thirds, lengthwise, and drape them evenly over the potato slices. Generously drizzle the potatoes with good extra virgin olive oil, give them a few grinds of coarsely ground black pepper and sprinkle them with a few small handfuls of capers, chopped parsley and chopped lovage.

If you do not have lovage, you can use the pale, inner leaves of the celery plant along with very thin slices of celery heart.

Other optionaal additions: Wedges of hard cooked egg, slices of roasted pepper, and pitted, coarsely chopped olives.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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