May 4, 2018

Brix + firm ≠ delicious

The Maine Winter Tomato Sandwich is one of my favorite of the year. Not to be confused with the Heirloom Tomato Sandwich that we feature in September (also one of my favorites, do you sense a theme?). This sandwich features tomatoes from a greenhouse in Maine called Backyard Farms, we pair it with sustainably harvested Maine seaweed (the “lettuce), our pita which is made daily with wheat grown and milled in Maine, and a siracha mayonnaise. It’s a beautiful surprising, simple but complex sandwich. This year we’ve had to change the tomatoes we use for this sandwich. We used to use a thick slab of tomato from Backyard Farms. This year we’re quartering 2 smaller tomatoes to fill the sandwich. The story is below.

We took a Clover field trip up to Maine about a month ago. We visited Backyard Farm Tomatoes (the GIANT 55 acre green house from which we buy tomatoes), Maine Grains (where we buy grain), and Tandem Coffee (our newest roaster). We typically do these trips with a handful of Clover employees, and in this case I added my 6 year old daughter Violet to the mix.

I’d been to Backyard Farms in the past and it’s an amazing place. Probably the largest building I’ve ever been in. The scale is stunning. This trip I got to meet Arie, who is the farmer behind our tomatoes.

I learned that while Clover has been really concerned about the tomatoes Backyard Farm felt their quality was the highest it had ever been. I asked how they were measuring quality. They said Brix (refractometer technique for measuring the sugar content) and firmness. This is the heart of the issue. We are amazing at optimizing our food system. But we’re NOT OPTIMIZING FOR TASTE. These tomatoes were nice and firm and had high sugar content but they just tasted like cardboard to us. What makes a tomato so delicious isn’t sugar and firmness!! They were absolutely beautiful looking but didn’t taste great.

Backyard has new owners, and they have changed the varietals they grow, they’ve also changed when the pick the tomatoes (less ripe). I learned a lot from the trip and I started to panic. We were set to launch our Maine Winter Tomato Sandwich in soon! I came back and sat with Chris and Martina to talk this through.

The point of the Maine Winter Tomato is to feature a tomato in the middle of the winter that is thick cut and juicy and deliciously tomato-y. We’d already had the seaweed harvested and dried and shipped. And it’s a LOT of seaweed. So we didn’t want to just yank the sandwich. We weren’t sure what to do.

We explored dredging and frying the tomatoes (this works great with green tomatoes, maybe it would work with the tomatoes we were getting from Backyard Farms? We didn’t like the result.

Chris decided to use a smaller Backyard Farms tomato that we like the taste of in the sandwich. It’s not the original sandwich we developed, but it is an appropriate response to changes we’re working through with suppliers. I’ve had the sandwich almost everyday and it’s delicious. And while this was a bit of a fire drill, I do think it should be our job to pay attention to taste and changes in supply and then work with our suppliers just like we’re doing here. Hope the result gives you a magical Maine Tomato experience!

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