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Haute Potatoes

From La Rattes to Russian Banana fingerlings, California's small-potato farmers are growing the new carbo stars. So much for the russet.

November 06, 2005|Kent Black

Alex Weiser is a modern potato farmer. He doesn't just hoe the rows on the 80 acres that Weiser Family Farms owns on a hillside above Tehachapi. He multitasks. While stooping to examine some Russian Banana fingerling potatoes and Rose Finns that his foreman has dug up, he takes calls from buyers and purveyors via his wireless Bluetooth and chats with visitors about the potatoes planted on the farm.

"We do about 10 varieties. There are the Rose Finns, Ruby Crescents, Red Thumbs, Purple Peruvians, Russian Blues, German Butterballs, Cranberry Reds, Red fingerlings and, of course, these Russian Banana fingerlings that everyone is crazy about," says Weiser, holding up a potato that does, in fact, look like a cross between a small, thin banana and a big, fat crooked finger. "We're also doing La Ratte--which, yeah, means 'the rat' in French--and it's pretty similar to the Russian fingerling. Light yellow flesh, nutty taste, but also surprisingly creamy. La Rattes were grown in only one region in France, and after World War II they almost disappeared. Farther up the hillside we're growing another French varietal, Ozette, which is like a white fingerling but straight."

You might think that Weiser's recitation is just starchy malarkey, but we're now entering the age of potato as star. It's no longer just for holding your gravy.

Mark Peel at Campanile recalls first buying Weiser's potatoes at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market about 13 years ago. He was excited by the possibilities posed by such unusual varieties. "What amazed me were the different characteristics. Some were creamy, some more mealy, while others were actually juicy," he says. "There are so many interesting cooking methods that you can apply to these potatoes. One of my favorites is when the Russian fingerlings get knobby and ugly." In fact, one of Peel's signature potato recipes is a confit made with these deformed fingerlings. "When I first started serving them, my customers would point at them and shout, 'What the hell is that?' "

Bill Spencer and his wife, Barbara, bought 51 acres in a small valley near Paso Robles in 1990 and christened their spread Windrose Farm. Like Weiser, their success as small farmers has been partly due to diversification--they're well-known for their heirloom tomatoes and apples as well as their potatoes--and their highly visible presence at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market. Their best-selling potatoes are Cranberry Reds, Blue Peruvians, Red Clouds, Russian fingerlings, Rose Gold and Carolas. They're also known for unusual varietals such as the Onaway, a baseball-sized white potato, and the Caribe, a smaller purple potato with white flesh.

"We were really lucky to have the kind of soil we do in this little valley," says Bill. "It's sandy, loamy soil, which is perfect for potatoes because it allows them to grow and expand. A lot of the soil here in San Luis Obispo County has a lot of clay, which puts pressure on the potatoes and causes them to grow misshapen. The soil also has a tendency to crack as the potatoes grow, which is like opening a door and inviting the bugs in for dinner."

Because they are small family operations, Weiser and Windrose farms can offer consumers and professionals information and services that aren't otherwise available. "When you go into a supermarket, there's no one there to explain the produce to you," says Weiser. "When you come to a farmers' market, the farmer himself can explain the taste difference between a butterball and a fingerling."

Chefs also can cajole farmers such as Weiser or the Spencers to hand-pick a few pounds of coveted new potatoes for them--a labor-intensive job that bigger operations would never consider. New potatoes have young skins that can be rubbed off with your thumb. Their taste usually is more delicate and subtle than if they were full-grown. "It's sort of like veal," says Weiser, "but not as cruel."

Chef Josiah Citrin of Santa Monica's Melisse believes specialty growers have propelled California's farmers' markets well beyond their storied French cousins. "The farmers' markets there are amazing, yes, but it's always the same," he says. "Here you have small farmers who are willing to try new things and take risks, with the result that sometimes you go to the market and see things you won't see anywhere else."

Another big reason boutique potato growers are popular is that their produce is available almost year-round. On average, it takes about 100 days to grow and harvest a potato. Big commercial operations in Idaho usually harvest one big planting a year. The potatoes then are kept in controlled-atmosphere storage rooms to ensure a longer shelf life. Windrose usually does two plantings, for spring and fall harvests. Weiser Family Farms plants a winter crop on its property near Bakersfield, which is harvested in early spring, before moving up to the Tehachapi property, where two separate plantings are tended and harvested until about Thanksgiving, when the first hard frosts arrive.

"We can't quite deliver fresh potatoes year-round. There's a month or two in there when we run out," says Weiser. "But, hopefully, that just whets our customers' appetites."

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