I never really got the point of persimmons. They struck me as a looks without substance sort of fruit – pretty and sweet, but ultimately forgettable. But age has mellowed my views, just as it mellows the flesh of the fruit itself.
Persimmons belong to the ebony family, and grow naturally in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe – which suggests a most ancient lineage, predating the great cleaving of Pangaea some 200 million years ago. With only a few mostly human-contrived exceptions, all persimmon, wild and cultivated, produce highly astringent fruit, meaning the flesh is inedibly rich in tannins. Despite hanging on the tree with plump and day-glow good looks, the fruit remain rock hard and mouth puckering for all but the briefest spell. Miraculously, like a last-minute reprieve, and quite without warning, the fruit transforms into a jam-tender, honey-sweet and hauntingly fragrant pleasure. They hold in this luscious form for a few days, before descending into putrescence.
This fickle and fleeting nature made the persimmon a hard sell for orchardists and fruiters alike. If less than perfectly ripe the fruit is disgusting, and when fully ripe it’s too fragile to ship. In Japan, where the fruit has had a near religious following for hundreds of years, this was all seen as part of the fun – and challenge, but in the west, persimmon were deemed too much trouble, and remained the preserve of home gardeners.
But from the 1960s plant breeders in the West concentrated on improving and multiplying rare non-astringent strains of the fruit with the hope of finding new markets and broader appeal world-wide. These very atypical persimmons can be eaten while still firm, shipped practically anywhere, and held in cool storage for months. What the lack in flavour they make up for with commerce-friendly durability. Today, non-astringent persimmons are the most widely grown worldwide including here in New Zealand ,where the Fuyu variety predominates.
The main downside to the convenience of the modern persimmon is that most consumers don’t know when or how to eat them. Although rock-hard Fuyu is perfectly inoffensive- sweet and vaguely nutty – it also unremarkable. Despite sweetness and orange hue, any hard non-astringent persimmon is completely unripe. As with their astringent cousins, to fully appreciate these fruit, one needs to exercise a little patience. The sweetness and syrupy texture of a properly ripened or ‘bletted’ persimmon is incomparable, and when sampled in this form, the Japanese obsession with them starts to make a lot more sense.
Select only the biggest, firmest and most splendidly orange fruit, and store them at room temperature, in a paper bag – with an apple. As the apple releases ethylene gas, the persimmons will ripen. This can happen with startling speed (within 12 hours sometimes), so check regularly for softness. Freezing can bring about an artificial ripeness but destroys the unique texture of the naturally ripened fruit. A ripe persimmon almost quivers like jelly and the flesh looks, feels and almost tastes like the finest apricot jam.
To enjoy the fruit au naturale simply pull off the calyx (the leafy stem-cap) and slide in a spoon. A little cream or plain yogurt isn’t unwelcome here either.
But as fine as it can be, Fuyu is but a shadow of its various astringent peers. Although not grown on much a commercial scale in New Zealand, the astringent variety Hiratanenashi is sometimes available at farmers’ markets, and from smaller fruit retailers. These are well worth searching out, either for eating ‘fresh’ as described above or drying to make the luxurious Japanese sweetmeat- hoshigaki. Although essentially just a peeled and dried (traditionally by way of icy winter winds) astringent persimmon, hoshigaki are fudgy, fragrant and unbelievably sweet, a bit like a date crossed with an apricot. Throughout the drying process the fruit are rubbed and massaged by hand, to help break down the astringency and tenderise the flesh. This autumn I had a go at making a small batch in my food-dryer, stopping every so often to apply a little therapeutic massage to the shrivelling fruit. The finished product is quite sublime and is shaping up to be my favourite dried fruit ever.
Persimmon trees will grow just about everywhere in New Zealand, and are mostly disease-free, reliable croppers. Due to their market scarcity and superior eating qualities, it makes more sense to plant an astringent variety at home. Trees can be bought from a number of online sources or though private sales on TradeMe. As an added bonus to their fruiting potential, persimmon trees flush a spectacular fiery-orange in autumn, even in the mildest climates.
If you live in Auckland or further north you might like to try your luck with sub-tropical black or ‘chocolate pudding’ persimmon (Diospyros digyna) too. This astringent variety from Mexico has a less than sexy, blotchy green skin, but a remarkable, chocolate mousse-like, sweet black flesh. This fruit has become a major new crop in Australia over the last decade or so, and will be familiar to any readers who’ve holidayed in Queensland. Although it doesn’t really taste like chocolate it’s interesting, nutritious andvery more-ish. To source seedlings of this variety look on trademe or try www.subtropica.co.nz.
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