Congratulations Grouse Mountain Farms On 8.2 Brix Tomato, Winner of the 2010 10.0 Brix Tomato Challenge.

Grouse Mountain Farm's 8.2 Brix German Red Strawberry Tomato

Grouse Mountain Farm's 8.2 Brix German Red Strawberry Tomato

In the worst summer in 30 years to grow tomatoes, we didn’t turn up a 10.0 Brix tomato in our 10.0 Brix Tomato Challenge but we did land an 8.2 Brix German Red Strawberry tomato at Liz Eggers and Mike Hampel’s  Grouse Mountain Farm stall at the University District Farmers Market. River Farm (U-District Market) and Summer Run Farm (Ballard Market) had the second and third highest Brix with a 7.2 Brandywine and a 7.0 German Striped. Tomato Challenge tomatoes were to be at least 2.5″ in diameter and commercially grown.

Looking back it seems destiny controlled the fate of the 8.2 Brix tomato that captured the $100 prize for the highest Brix tomato in our 10.0 Brix Tomato Challenge. Kevin Davis has also invited the couple in for dinner at Blueacre Seafood Restaurant. It was a stunning German Red Strawberry variety grown for the first time this year by Liz and Mike. (I mistakenly identified it as a Brandywine). I was lucky to find it.  I came to the market late that day. This tomato was one of the last ones unsold. It caught my eye even before I got to the stall.


Liz Eggers and Mike Hampel of Grouse Mountain Farm

Liz Eggers and Mike Hampel of Grouse Mountain Farm at the U-District Farmers Market.


When I called Liz at her and Mike’s farm in Chelan to tell her they had won $100 for the highest Brix tomato, she said, “I’m half-shocked since I and many other growers considered this year a less than optimum year for tomatoes. I didn’t even plan to submit a tomato to the challenge, you just happened by and picked up that tomato. Lots of people looked at it, but were scared away by the size!”

Greg Atkinson happened by. It didn’t scare him. “Now that is a tomato!” Greg said with a knowing grin.

When most tomatoes this summer were coming in around 5, including some from the Grouse Mountain table, an 8.2 Brix tomato was quite a score.

When a tomato reaches 8.0 Brix you notice distinct density. With sugar being heavier than water, an 8.0 Brix tomato is heavier in the hand and decidedly firmer. They look more confident. They announce themselves. On a good year, you can often spot them on a table.

I wait until I get home to measure tomatoes I have gathered that day at the different markets. I try to photograph particularly beautiful tomatoes and steps in the process. To get a Brix measurement I need a drop of juice on the refractive lens. After measuring the sugars, the tomatoes gathered that day get sauced.

Grouse Mountain Farm
I asked Liz to tell me about that tomato, their farm and to send a few photos. Liz says the German Red Strawberry is an indeterminate variety that needs staking. “It has wispy foliage and is a shy bearer for me. I’m guessing 80-85 days to maturity, although it is hard to tell this year. I grew it from seeds a friend gave me a few years ago.

“We started farming in 1988 when we moved to our land at 25-Mile Creek on Lake Chelan. We cleared some land of brush to put in a small planting of fruit trees and a small garden. The key word here is small. We only farm two acres now and do all of the work ourselves. We started with things we were interested in, unusual fruits that were hard to find, heirloom varieties of apples and pears, colorful heirloom tomatoes, etc.

When we started getting an abundance of produce one year (1994) we attended the Tilth Harvest Festival and sold the surplus. This was before the Neighborhood Farmers Market Association started. When we realized the interest in our produce we decided to expand as much as we could, and still be able to do all the work ourselves. We have been selling at the University District Farmers Market since 1995. Although we have always used organic practices, we became certified organic in 1996. We love direct marketing and have built many friendships with our customers over the years.

As far as cultural practices with tomatoes, I don’t think I do anything that special. I start all my own seeds, put the plants in a small unheated hoop house (I have to bring them in at night until frost threat is over) and then plant them out about mid-May. As you can see in the photos, I trellis them up some fencing at a fairly close spacing 1 1/2′ apart, rows about 3′ apart. I don’t prune them. We spray them a couple of times in early growth period with some fish fertilizer and kelp. Try to keep them watered and weeded. That’s about it. Then it is – wait until they ripen and enjoy!!”

I have purchased 10.0 Brix tomatoes from Liz and Mike in the past but it was not to be this year.

Liz Eggers in the garden at Grouse Mountain Farm

Liz Eggers with her tomatoes at Grouse Mountain Farm


What did we learn?
I have used variations of this survey method to find and learn about the best strawberries, peaches and even the best salmon and oysters. Taste and compare, taste and compare, taste and compare. In the case of fruits and vegetables, it becomes measure, taste and compare. It remains to figure out what was learned in the worst tomato growing summer in decades.

The amount of sunlight, soil temperature, air temperature, air flow (CO2 required for photosynthesis), plant spacing, leaf surface, and a multitude of other factors can affect the success of a tomato plant as measured by a refractometer.

Grouse Mountain tomato

Grouse Mountain Farm's 8.2 Brix German Red Strawberry Tomato

Low Brix was something that all Northwest tomatoes shared this year whoever the grower, whatever the variety, whatever the method which in this particular year, would lead me to suspect not enough sunlight for extended periods of time throughout the region probably had something to do with it.


Sunlight is required for photosynthesis. Different plants have different solar energy requirements. Tomato plants obviously did not receive their normal summer allotment this year. That is my conjecture. This winter I’m going to look at local weather history looking especially at cloud cover through the years to see what I can learn vis-a-vis tomato happiness.

I’ve been in touch with a few tomato growers in other parts of the country. I’m hoping to collect tomato Brix readings from them next year so we can compare. Farmers are like fishermen, eternal optimists. Lets put this season behind us and get ready for a tomato glory year.

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An update on the 10.0 Brix Tomato Challenge

Tomatoes at the MarketThe 10 Brix Tomato Challenge is dedicated to the late Emmett Watson who wished for a great Pacific Northwest-grown tomato. The idea is see if there is something to learn about growing tomatoes for better density and flavor, to salute the best growers and hopefully create demand for a better tomato.  Just my luck it would be the coolest summer in 30 years. We have gone straight from July to October; in my own garden, planted late, I have yet to see a ripe tomato.

We have been sampling tomatoes from different growers selling in Seattle area Farmers Markets for the past month. Thanks to farmer’s market managers Chris Curtis (University, Magnolia, Columbia City, West Seattle), Julie Whitehorn (Queen Anne), and Lori Taylor, (Bellevue) for your support of the project and for help with gathering samples and logistics. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Testing tomatoes from the Bellevue Farmer's Market

Testing tomatoes from the Bellevue Farmer's Market

It has been a tough slog. Very few tomatoes brixed over 6.0 which is my benchmark for a tomato-tasting tomato. It gets discouraging when tomato after tomato, week after week, no matter which variety, no matter which grower, Brixes under 6.0, with some as low as 3.5.

Things perked up past Saturday at the U. District Farmer’s Market when a sizable firm Brandywine of intense red color spoke out to me, “You aren’t going to be disappointed in me.” And I wasn’t disappointed. “That is a tomato!” exclaimed Greg Atkinson, who happened to walk up at the moment. Farmers Market StallIt didn’t reach 10 Brix but it jumped way up the Brix ladder to 8.2…pretty exciting actually after a month of low Brix measurements. There followed tomatoes from two different growers at the Ballad Market on Sunday which measured over 7.0 Brix, encouragement to keep the Tomato Challenge going another week. The grower of the 8.2 tomato (don’t want to spoil the ending), who grows tomatoes uncovered outside, says his tomatoes are just coming on. They are at the same stage of ripening in the middle of Sept that they were in the middle of August last year. It the weather cooperates with a few more warm days, we might see a 10 Brix tomato after all! That would make me very happy.

Brandywine ready for the Brix test.

Brandywine ready for the Brix test.

I set the bar at 10.0 Brix based on notes I have taken on farmer’s market tomatoes and my own P-Patch tomatoes in the past. 10 Brix is doable (on a good year). Tomatoes are tested with Vee Gee and Atago refractometers by squeezing a drop of juice on the lens and viewing the % of sugar or Brix through the viewfinder.

Squeeze a drop of juice on the lens.

Squeeze a drop of juice on the lens.

Growing tomatoes for density and flavor is a matter of providing the plant optimum conditions for photosynthesis or the manufacture of glucose. I’d love to see the day when the best growers post their tomato Brix like Seattle’s Metropolitan Markets post their Peach-O-Rama Brix daily.

Lens cap closed over a drop of juice. Ready for viewing.

Lens cap closed over a drop of juice. Ready for viewing.

The 10 Brix Tomato Challenge winner will recieve $100 cash, dinners at Blueacre SeafoodThe Herbfarmemmer & rye, and both the Steelhead Diner and Blueacre Seafood tomato accounts. If no 10 Brix tomato turns up, $100 will go to the highest Brix tomato.

If you are interested in this project, I will be discussing tomato flavor and will be measuring sugars in Saturday’s tomatoes  from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. at the Slow Food booth as part of the Artisan Food Fair at Pike Place Market. Bring a tomato from your garden. I will be happy to measure, or show you how to measure. it’s percentage of sugars.


A pretty Brandywine. Will this be the one?

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Judging the Apple Pie Contest at Piper Orchard

Apple PiesI love apple pie and have been trying to learn about heirloom apples so I couldn’t very well turn down an invitation to judge an apple pie contest organized by the Friends of Piper Orchard, Seattle Tree Fruit Society and City Fruit. The Piper Orchard with some 50 heirloom apple and some nut trees in Carkeek Park was planted in the 1890’s but had become neglected and overgrown until being cleaned up and refurbished by a dedicated group of community heirloom apple enthusiasts in the 1980’s. Today it is a living museum of heirloom apple tree varieties maintained by the Seattle Parks Department and Friends of Piper Orchard.

Cider Press

Apple Cider press Photo: Nancy Gohring

Held at the Environmental Learning Center at Carkeek Park, the apple pie contest was part of the annual Festival of Fruit which included an heirloom apple tasting, cider press, lecture on making hard cider by Northwest apple guru Bob Norton, apple identification for people who don’t know the variety of the old apple tree in their back yard and a tour of Piper Orchard.

I was instructed to be ready to judge at 10:00 am. When I arrived, fellow judge Bob Norton, was giving a talk about making hard cider.

A table in the back of the room held the pies, bathed in the slanted autumn light coming in through the window. About a third of the pies, recently out of the oven, were still warm. Is there anything more heartwarming than the smell of apple pie right out of the oven? I guess the answer would be the smell of several apple pies right out the oven.

King Tompkins

King Tompkins

Earlier that morning I sent out a tweet on Twitter asking what made an apple pie great. Molly Watson, a former staffer at Sunset Magazine replied immediately, “Fully cooked apples, flaky crust and not a lot of nonsense in between.” Angie Jabine former editor of Northwest Palate magazine added, “Superior crust (the hardest part), the right sweet-tart ratio. Cinnamon.” “It’s all about the crust!” says Poppy Tooker from New Orleans. Colorado piemaker Kelly Yandell, whose Twitter handle is @themeaningofpie, likes a little lemon zest. Archery coach Ann J. from Toronto says “tasty crust, not too thick, cooked through and apples should have good texture.”

I’m also big fan of crust… a golden-brown, tender, crisp, flaky crust with “backbone.” My wife Kate and I collaborated on a joyful two-year quest to develop the quintessential American apple pie figuring pie was probably the best way to celebrate and give expression to heirloom apples. When we started I had a notion of what the perfect crust was like; it just took two years to get there.

Robury Russet

Roxbury Russet

Apple pie, of course, is all about apples and there are so many to choose from. Some apples turn into applesauce in a pie. Others like the Newtown Pippin hardly lose their shape at all when cooked. Some are seductively aromatic. The Brammley Seedling is puckeringly tart and Russets are sweet.

Unless I’m using Gravensteins, the tart-sweet apple which many say has the best flavor of all, I favor a mix of apples with different textures, colors, aromas and flavors. I’ve been exploring the wonderful world of heirloom apples like those century old varieties grown in Piper Orchard. Professor Norton has a simple definition for “heirloom” when applied to apples—“a variety that has been around for at least a century.”

With more heirloom varieties coming into farmer’s markets, selecting apples for a pie is a fun way to support the growers committed to bringing the old varieties back and a way to experience and learn about the panoply of tastes and textures of the apples our grandparents and their grandparents made pies from.

Apple pies with fellow judge, Lorna Yee

Apple pies with fellow judges Tracy Bernal and Lorna Yee

My fellow pie judges were Tracy Bernal, former Tom Douglas pastry chef and veteran Festival of Fruit pie judge; food writer, blogger and cookbook author Lorna Yee and Professor Norton who joined in after his cider talk. There were ten apple pies to judge. Each pie had a number. Judges received a slice of each and scored the crust and filling on several criteria. Every pie received a ribbon. We awarded three pies “Best of Show” ribbons, two for superior crust and pie #5 for a standout apple filling. Unfortunately I never learned the variety of apple in pie #5, nor did we learn who submitted it. Shucks. I couldn’t help thinking if the pie maker with the best crust would marry the piemaker with the best filling, we would have a hell of pie.

I tried not to eat too much pie but wasn’t successful.

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The 10.0 Brix Tomato Challenge

Emmett Watson

Emmett Watson

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.
Farmers Market 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. Vee Gee RefractometerIt 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. photosynthesis formulaEverything 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.

  • 4.05.0 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


    14.0 Brix Brandywine

  • 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.

Tomatoes with refractometer

Photo: Ron Zimmerman, The Herbfarm

And here’s a little something Ron Zimmerman of The Herbfarm was inspired to create for the 10.0 Brix Tomato Challenge:

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Umami—“the beautiful taste”

An old word dusted off for a new age

As a bit of background, I first heard the word umami in a presentation on the quality of flatfish in the Bering Sea harvest by NOAA research scientist Dr. Diane Green. It had something to do with the quality of flavor as affected by how fish was handled during and after harvest.

I became intrigued, fascinated and then obsessed with learning more about this word, especially when everyone I asked, including Dr. Greene, had so much difficulty explaining it.

I began asking every Japanese person and anyone who spoke Japanese and was acquainted with the culture what his/her understanding of the word was. In Hawaii I had the unique opportunity to sit with a group of Japanese cooking teachers and culinary scholars in an impromptu round table discussion of the word. The discussion was fascinating but no consensus. Just about each person had a different interpretation of umami.

It became increasingly clear that umami has two different meanings:
1. A more recent scientific definition which is translatable and refers to a fifth taste (a savory, pungent meaty taste) or the chemical basis for that taste …msg.
2. An older philosophical /cultural meaning probably rooted in Zen Buddhism or Shinto.

We know sweet, sour, bitter and salty tastes. Umami was introduced to describe the qualities of a meaty taste, the same taste induced by monosodium glutamate. My research traced the first use umami as a fifth taste to the marketing of MSG when it was manufactured as a flavor enhancer after Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo discovered the flavor enhancing properties of glutamic acid in 1909. The manufacture of  monosodium glutamate (MSG), made at the time from wheat gluten, was patented by the Ajinomoto Corporation of Japan in 1909. Interestingly the name Ajinomoto means essence of taste. The Ajinomoto company promoted the idea of Umami, the fifth taste. to market MSG. MSG was not well-known in the U.S. until it was marketed as the flavor enhancer Accent after the second world war. The FDA rejected umami as the fifth basic taste in the 1950s, categorizing it as a flavor enhancer.

It was the older definition I was intrigued with. The more recent fifth taste meaning kept getting in the way of my understanding of the older meaning.

The older definition of umami does not translate easily, if at all, into English. In attempting to translate umami into English, Japanese will use words like taste, flavor, deliciousness, and essence and then say but that’s not quite it. Most Japanese experience frustration trying to put umami into English.

After seven years of trying to understand the umami concept and talking about it to anyone who would listen I began using it my consulting work. Building on success, at a certain point I felt comfortable enough to teach it, at first within the context of  my client relationships with restaurants, supermarket staffs and growers and then in full day seasonal workshops for chefs and food professionals at the Herbfarm and for various organizations like the Les Chaines des Rotisseurs.

Distilling my notes from my conservations with quite a number Japanese I put together a kind of umami manifesto for use as a teaching handout. Not being or speaking Japanese, I’m still not sure if my understanding of umami is consonant with its use in Japanese. Jeffrey Steingarten, award-winning food writer at Vogue and well-schooled in Japanese culture, says it is not.

Some Japanese say I am off-base with what I’ve put together; others tell me they are happy to see this kind of meaning advanced.

Whether or not I have the Japanese sense of umami entirely correct, the concept, as developed, has been well received by chefs like Paul Bertoli, Rick Moonen, Jerry Traunfeld, Greg Atkinson. Michael Tusk, Ron Zimmerman, Danielle Custer, and  Peter Drohomyrecky who are happy to have such an approach and way to think about  ingredients they use and the food they prepare. Ruth Reichl used the older sense of umami in a New York Times restaurant review. Tom Sietsema has used it in the Washington Post. A number of Seattle writers have used it to describe a sense of perfection in a food.

I asked my students to disregard or suspend the fifth taste definition in favor of the older definition which captures so well a food in its state of grace when it has become all it can become.

Japanese kanji are similar to the Latin roots of many of our words.

The kanji in umami separate into the kanji for beautiful and taste. Beautiful taste.

In the Japanese language, umami is used mostly in the context of food. In a non-food context, a stock market tip with much promise is said to have umami as is a particularly good piece of writing. In these two uses both a sense of promise and quality are conveyed.

In Shinto and Buddhism, each food’s natural flavor, color, shape and aroma are considered a gift from nature to be enjoyed and revered. This combination of qualities can be thought of as a food’s umami.

A food has umami when it has become all that can be, when it is at its peak of quality and fulfillment.  Before that point a food has potential for umami.  After that point the food has lost it, or in the words of Masa Takayama, owner-chef of Masa in New York, “umami goes away.”

Umami can involve all of the senses: sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste.

Umami wakens positive emotions.

Umami contains promise of pleasurable outcome.

Umami conveys a sense of beauty.

Anticipation enhances umami.

If a food has umami, umami does not exist unless we have the experience and understanding to recognize it.

Seasonality and ripeness are essential elements.

If picked too soon, a food may never achieve umami.

Umami usually implies proximity to the growing area.

Umami can be lost if a food is harvested, prepared or served with neglect or disrespect.

Education, experience and understanding elevate and refine our perception and enjoyment of umami.

Our perception and appreciation of umami are enhanced by occasion and setting, timing and preparation, presentation and service.

With English lacking such a word, the concept of umami gives us a framework to discuss, understand and enjoy perfection in a food, when it has become all it can be, when it has fulfilled itself.

Umami presumes the inherent goodness of foods.

– Jon Rowley, 2009

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