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Appreciating the Lowly Persimmon

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Just last month, my friend Kimberly and I were walking through my orchard when she spied an orange fruit hanging from one of the trees. Plucking it off and pointing it toward her mouth, she was about to take a bite when I caught her.

“No!” I snapped. “You don’t want to eat that!” 

“But why? It looks ripe. What is it?” she replied undaunted.

That’s what I love about her; well, it’s one of the many things. Her curiosity and appreciation for food of all types are what brought us together and have helped us cultivate such a strong friendship.

When I saw that fruit headed toward her open mouth, I was horrified because I know too well the damage an unripe Hachiya persimmon can do to the tongue. It’s almost as bad as biting into an olive straight off the tree that has not been cured. Left unwarned, Kimberly’s mouth would have puckered with the texture of a thousand hair balls and it would have been nearly impossible to purge, regardless of how much water she swallowed or spat. Only time would cleanse her palate from the astringent tannins of the unripe fruit.

And this is the bane of the lowly persimmon. I believe it is due to this affliction, the persimmon’s only real flaw, that it is so under-appreciated. But to be fair, there are two general types of cultivated persimmons, the Hachiya and the Fuyu, each with its own distinctive attributes and uses. They are both delicious when given the consideration they each deserve. To put it simply, one is for baking and the other is for eating straight off the tree. Obviously, the one headed for my friend’s mouth was not the latter. 

I grew up with the baking one, the Hachiya. Ready to make her famous persimmon cookies, my mom would declare them ripe enough and would send me out to the orchard to gather only the ones that were so ripe they looked as though they would lose contact with the branch at any moment. Naturally, many of those had already been deemed ripe by the birds. These elongated, oval-shaped fruits are mouth-puckeringly tart unless absolutely, supremely ripe. They should be unbelievably soft and are often nearly liquified into a silky-smooth, jelly-like pulp inside the peel. When pureed, they add substantial moisture and a mild, pumpkin-like flavor to cakes, cookies, breads and puddings. With the addition of fall spices, these tasty baked treats can liven up an otherwise drab cooking season and rival the fragrance and flavor of any pumpkin-based fare.

Only fairly recently did I come upon the other variety, the Fuyu. A Japanese friend shared some with me, saying that one must eat it like an apple. Having grown up with the terribly astringent Hachiya, I was justifiably skeptical. To allay my fears, she proceeded to slice it and upon sampling it, I was in love. In contrast to the Hachiya, the Fuyu persimmon is considered to be non-astringent; although it’s not completely free of tannins as the term suggests, it is far less astringent than the Hachiya before it is fully ripened. Its tannins also disappear sooner in the maturation process, so you can eat Fuyus while they’re still on the firm side, although they are also wonderful when very soft. The Fuyu is smaller than the Hachiya and somewhat squat and flat. They add interest and flavor to any salad and are quite delicious fresh off the grill. These bright orange gems have become my favorite apple replacement on my late-season charcuterie board.

Persimmons are one of the oldest fruits cultivated, with roots in ancient Asia. Records show that they have been grown in China for over 2,000 years and are also native to Japan, Korea, Burma and Nepal. Japanese and Chinese cultivars were first introduced to the U.S. around 1870. According to UC Davis, most domestic commercial production of persimmons is centered right here in California.

Rich in dietary fiber, persimmons also contain nutrients such as manganese, iron, beta-carotene, vitamins A and C as well as several other health-promoting phytonutrients and antioxidants. They contain the phytochemical betulinic acid, which has been shown to have anti-viral, anti-malarial and anti-inflammatory properties as well as great potential as an anti-cancer/tumor agent. With so many health benefits, it is no wonder that persimmons have long been considered by the Greeks as “the divine fruit.” The fruit is actually a berry from the edible fruit trees in the genus Diospyros, which means “fruit of the gods.”

According to folklore, persimmon seeds can be used to predict the severity of the coming winter. The seeds from a locally grown persimmon are soaked in hot water to soften before being gently pried apart so that the cotyledon inside is visible. If the tiny plant-to-be has a fork shape, the winter will be mild. A spoon shaped cotyledon indicates that there will be a lot of snow, but beware of the cotyledon in the shape of a knife, as the winter will be bitingly cold, or “cut like a knife.” Although many mid-westerners and easterners, including farmers, believe this old wives’ tale, I’m not sure how accurate it would be here in the Valley, since we don’t generally get a lot of snow. 

Whether the old lore is to be believed or not, it does say a lot about how the persimmon is revered in other parts of the country. Once you get to know persimmons and how to use them, you’re sure to find delicious ways to indulge. Whether it’s scooping out the luscious flesh of a Hachiya to be baked into a steamy, spiced pudding or slicing a firm Fuyu into a fall-fruit salad with fresh winter mesclun, they are sure to be one of your go-to late-season fruits. As for me, I grow both types on the farm and am excited to share them both, in their best form, with my friend Kimberly.

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