The late Emmett Watson, long time columnist and Seattle culture chronicler for the Seattle P-I and then the Seattle Times, railed until his death against the inadequacy of local tomatoes.
He covered the Seattle Mariners’ spring training in Florida. Once he tasted a really great tomato, there was no going back. Washington tomatoes didn’t make the cut when he came home. Emmett asked me once if I could do for tomatoes what I did for peaches with Metropolitan Market’s Peach-O-Rama. Years have gone by but it feels like the time, with the farmer’s market farming movement, is right for a great local tomato quest. My whole life and career seem to have involved a series of quests. Peach-O-Rama was the result of a two year quest to find the best West Coast peaches. Peaches and Peach-O-Rama will be the subject of a future post but now it is tomatoes.
For the past three weeks I have been stalking farmer’s markets looking for great tomatoes, really good tomatoes that exceed 10.0 Brix, without success. The season is growing short. That is why I am offering $100 for a 10.0 Brix commercially grown 2.5″ or larger uncut tomato. Blueacre Seafood and Steelhead Diner will give you their tomato business. emmer & rye, The Herbfarm, and Blueacre Seafood, and Campagne will buy you dinner. Kevin Davis at Blueacre knows 10-Brix tomatoes. He has worked with them in California. I have grown them but not on a commercial scale.
Brix is a measurement of the percentage of sugars in fruits or vegetables as measured by a refractometer. You can find inexpensive refractometers on eBay for about $30.
The ones I use come from Atago (model Master Alpha) and Vee Gee (model BX-1) in Kirkland. It is a simple instrument. All you do is put a drop of juice on a lens and then look through the viewfinder to get the instant reading. I’m forever befuddled why every farmer, fruit grower, buyer and home cook doesn’t have one.
So what does a Brix measurement tell us? A high brix reading (each fruit and vegetable has a different Brix range) indicates the fruit came from a successful plant and that the farmer has soil, watering, air and sun working together optimally. A plants primary job is photosynthesis. Everything manufactured in the plant uses glucose as a building block. If if a plant has high brix it has more of everything, especially taste.
Moreso than a simple sweet taste, high brix usually comes across as a deeper, more satisfying varietal flavor.
I have tasted and brixed (we’ll use brix as a verb) countless tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes are always sweeter but the taste is one-dimensional sweetness. In many cases, but not always, the larger the tomato variety, the more complex the tomato flavor. Here’s a scale I came up with to provide taste reference points for brix measurements.
- 4.0-5.0 The majority of commercial tomatoes seem to fall into this range. Undistinguished flavor.
- 6.0 This is where the tomato starts to taste like a tomato. Brightness comes into good tomato flavor.
- 8.0 Denser, more intensity and bright, concentrated flavor, a noticeably good tomato
- 10.0 Dense, solid, tremendous varietal flavor. We are experiencing a truly great tomato.
- 12.0 You will remember this tomato taste for a long time.
- 14.0 The highest brix tomato (Brandywine) I have tasted. Unbelievable. A flavor to make an Italian grandmother weep with joy.
Perhaps 10.0 Brix is raising the bar too high but we shall see. Emmett, the 10.0 Brix Tomato Challenge is dedicated to you. Let’s cross our fingers.