"Alden Farms potatoes have that taste of the earth that you can't get in any store-bought potato," he says. "Our chefs and customers are blown away by the taste...
Nat Stratton-Clarke, general manager of Seattle's Café Flora, gets right down to it:
"Alden Farms potatoes have that taste of the earth that you can't get in any store-bought potato," he says. "Our chefs and customers are blown away by the taste. People are used to grocery-store potatoes that have no flavor."
The certified organic potatoes from Monroe's Alden Farms do cook beautifully, taste superb and store well. But such basic virtues don't come easily. They come from a lot of ingenuity and hard work.
"Western Washington is one of the best places to grow yellow and red thin-skinned potatoes. It's the soil type," says Peter Alden, who owns the farm. "Compared to Eastern Washington, we have a heavier soil with more organic matter . . . But the realities are harsh. Farming in an urban environment is very difficult."
In 1994, Peter came home from his job as a network engineer and told his wife, Jan, that he wanted to quit and buy a farm. Jan laughed. But within a month, Peter had found a 100-year-old Victorian home in Monroe, and the adventure began.
Originally part of the Evergreen Ranch, the house sits in the Tualco Valley on fertile farmland. At the turn of the 19th century, the lucrative homestead produced potatoes, cattle and dairy products that were sold to nearby lumber camps.
The Aldens decided to focus on potatoes because another farmer indicated there was a market for specialty spuds. They also knew potatoes have an inherently longer shelf life, making the operation more practical and allowing more control over sales. The first year, though, was a disaster. Peter says they just didn't have the experience. While their potatoes were edible, they were scabby and misshapen — unsuitable for today's retail market. But the Aldens had already made a huge investment in farm equipment, so they decided to stick it out and grow only certified organic potatoes.
Each year, the Aldens now grow nearly a million pounds of unusual, highly flavorful varieties such as: Yellow Finn, All Blue, German Butterball, Princesse La Ratte fingerling, Viking Purple, Red Thumb and Rose Finn Apple fingerling. Leasing enough land that can be immediately certified organic has become a huge challenge. They've had to relocate their growing operation eight times in 12 years. The population in Monroe has tripled since the Aldens moved in, and tracts of land that were once farms are now subdivisions or private estates.
Over the years, Peter has become a soil sleuth and has instinctively hunted down retired dairy farms. "It's all been left fallow and has not been cropped for many years, so it doesn't have the chemicals on it," he explains. For Peter, this virgin farmland is perfectly balanced nutritionally and is the foundation for his organic operation.
Chemicals play a huge role in the production of conventional potatoes. According to Peter, "This results in a pretty potato that is totally lacking in taste. To grow things well organically you have to be in touch with the weather and the soil. This isn't a cookie-cutter operation. I'm there every day. I have a feel for what's going on." He is deep in the dirt, pulling weeds, scouting for pests and surveying vines for late blight.
Peter gets discouraged when cooks point out an occasional harmless imperfection on a potato's skin, and he encourages them to stop judging a spud by its cover and go for flavor. Nonetheless, he and Jan cull more than 200,000 pounds of perfectly edible but somewhat blemished potatoes each year. These are donated to food banks or given to local dairies where they are served as "cow chow."
For Jan, who handles the storage and retail side of the operation, it's the customer interaction that makes the business worthwhile. Throughout the fall and winter, her potatoes can be found at Whole Foods, PCC, specialty grocers and local high-end restaurants. Between August and December, she sells at the University District Farmers Market and the West Seattle Farmers Market.
Daisley Gordon, executive chef at Campagne and Café Campagne, regularly buys her Yukon Golds and fingerlings for a good reason: "The bulk of my job is finding a good and consistent source of high-quality product," he says. "So when I see Jan has this stuff, it makes my job easy. I can count on the wholesomeness of their product."
Melissa A. Trainer is a freelance food and travel writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Greg Gilbert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Recipe: Alden Farms Garlic Roasted Potatoes
Serves 4 to 6
This simple, versatile recipe is from Alden Farms co-owner Jan Alden.
2 to 3 pounds organic fingerlings, red, yellow and/or blue potatoes
1 to 4 garlic cloves, chopped
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wash the potatoes and place them, whole and unpeeled, in a baking dish. Coat the potatoes lightly with the olive oil and sea salt. Cook 45 minutes or until tender when pierced. Sprinkle with the chopped garlic. Cook an additional 10 minutes and serve.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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