Food of the gods
Sept./Oct. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Shannon Springmeyer
Photos by Matt Salvo and Cecilia Parsons
Learning to savor fall's forgotten stars
Jean Brine has spent a lifetime collecting recipes for persimmons after falling in love with the fruit. In 2010, she published a cookbook titled "Perfectly Persimmon," featuring her recipe collection. Brine hopes the book can help more people find ways to enjoy persimmons.
For some, persimmons are the quintessential fall fruit. They conjure memories of Grandma's cakey, spiced cookies and dazzle with their brilliant orange hues.
Others just scratch their heads, hesitant to try the unfamiliar fruit or unsure of how to enjoy them.
That's something Jean Brine would like to see change. Now an ardent fan, she herself was once among the persimmon-perplexed.
When she moved to California from North Dakota with her family in the early 1950s, Brine had never seen a persimmon. She first glimpsed the bright orange orbs growing behind the rental houses her parents owned in Sacramento. She said she'll never forget that first taste.
"I thought, 'Oh, what an interesting, beautiful, mild, unusual flavor of fruit,'" Brine said.
The persimmon's complex but delicate, honeyed flavor has been called divine—the word "Diospyros" in the scientific name for persimmons roughly translates from Greek as "food of the gods."
Brine points out that knowing how to enjoy a persimmon depends entirely on knowing what type you have: the astringent Hachiya or nonastringent Fuyu (see story below).
On the advice of friends, Brine let her acorn-shaped Hachiyas become "dead ripe" before slurping their soft pulp from a spoon. That's because Hachiya persimmons are loaded with bitter, mouth-puckering tannins when firm.
But left to ripen slowly on a countertop, the tannins give way to complex layers of intense sweetness and a flavor of almost floral delicacy, as the fruit softens to the consistency of jelly. Try too soon, and the astringency might turn you off the fruit for good. But those with the patience to wait anywhere from a few days to a few weeks until it's squishy-ripe are richly rewarded with a nectar-sweet flesh unlike that of any other fruit.
For Brine, now 84, that first taste was the beginning of a lifelong love affair, or what some might call an obsession.
"I'm a persimmon nut," she acknowledges.
Brine is just as crazy about the Fuyu variety. Fuyu persimmons are squat like a pumpkin and can be eaten out of hand like an apple, straight from the tree. They are ripe when firm and share the ethereal, honeyed flavor of their Hachiya cousins, with a touch less sweetness.
Brine began looking for ways to use the copious crop of her parents' persimmon trees, but couldn't find many recipes for this relatively little-known fruit. So she started to research and asked around, collecting every persimmon recipe she encountered for the next half-century. In 2010, she published 1,010 recipes from her collection in a cookbook titled "Perfectly Persimmon." The Fuyu and Hachiya recipes encompass nearly every course, including soups, salads, roasted meats, jams, baked goods and liqueurs.
In response, she received enthusiastic letters from other persimmon fans from around the country. But she said many people remain as unfamiliar with the fruit as she herself once was.
"When you speak of persimmons, the only thing that comes to 90 percent of people is, 'Oh, I love persimmon cookies!'" Brine said. "But that's just a drop in the bucket of what you can do with persimmons."
Tastes of the times
While persimmons have enjoyed unflagging popularity in their native Asia for thousands of years, their story in the States is punctuated with ups and downs.
Wild American persimmons are native to the Eastern states. But the cultivated varieties that thrive in California orchards and backyards were first grown in China and Japan, and were introduced to America by immigrants from Asia and by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the mid-1800s. By 1930, there were 3,000 acres of persimmons in California, where the trees flourish and where most of the nation's crop is still grown.
Though thousands of varieties grow in Asia, Hachiya and Fuyu persimmons dominate the domestic market.
Until about the mid-1980s or early '90s, Hachiyas were by far the most common variety of the two, said Kevin Day, a persimmon expert and director of University of California Cooperative Extension in Tulare County. Hachiyas were probably at their most popular in the '30s and '40s, according to Day. They were used primarily for home baking, to add moisture and sweetness.
"I think it really is a throwback to those people that grew up in the Depression era," Day said. "It was a hardy, tolerant fruit that was something that could be utilized when you had very little."
But by 1981, California persimmon cultivation had fallen to about 700 acres. Hachiyas were viewed as old-fashioned and their ripening habits a bit strange, Day said. To differentiate the market and provide more convenience for customers, growers turned to ripe-when-firm Fuyus.
Since then, Fuyus have been America's favorite persimmon. Culinary trendsetters have embraced the fruit, and Fuyus routinely grace the seasonally inspired menus of restaurants and are featured in food blogs throughout the country. By 2012, cultivation of persimmons had returned to nearly 2,900 acres.
But within just the past few years, Day has seen interest swing the other way, and Hachiyas seem to be poised to stage a comeback. Their reputation for being "old-fashioned" is now a key part of their appeal, at a time when the demand for heirloom crops keeps growing, Day said.
"For a good 20-year period, I never talked to anybody that wanted to plant Hachiyas, because everybody was asking questions about Fuyus. And now, people are only asking questions about Hachiyas," Day said.
Tom Prescott and his son Paul grow citrus fruit and Hachiya persimmons on their Tulare County farm. The elder Prescott grew up eating Hachiya persimmons from a 100-year-old tree on his father's farm in Orange County, the same tree that provided the budwood to start his own persimmon orchard 20 years ago.
Growing against the grain
Tom Prescott of Porterville was ahead of the trend. When others were putting in Fuyus 20 years ago, Prescott planted cuttings from the hardy, 100-year-old Hachiya tree on his father's farm in Orange County.
He said he viewed persimmons as a way to diversify his farming operations, which are mostly focused on citrus. Persimmons are easy to grow and resistant to pests and disease, he said.
In California, persimmon season generally begins at the end of September and lasts through December. Early October is the time the crop at Prescott Ranch starts turning the color of salmon and buyers begin to call and place orders. To avoid the middlemen and provide personalized quality control, Prescott heads a small harvest crew that hand-clips, sizes, grades and field-packs persimmons to order for customers.
He weighs each box, determines if the fruit has the proper color and size and is free of "shoe polish"—black marks from sunburn that don't affect quality but turn off customers. Most of the fruit, Prescott said, goes directly to customers in Los Angeles or San Francisco. He has also sold persimmons to buyers on the East Coast and New Mexico. His fruit is particularly popular with Chinese and Korean customers.
Tom Prescott's son Paul, who farms with him, acknowledged Hachiyas are still less well-known among the general public, despite being so delicious.
One of the family's favorite ways to enjoy Hachiyas is to slice them when still firm, to reveal the natural star pattern inside, and dry them in a food dehydrator. The process removes the astringency, leaving an exceptionally tasty snack, he said.
"You can't stop eating them, they're that good. And they are good for you," Paul Prescott said. "The kids absolutely love them. You have to portion them because they will eat a whole bag of them."
He said a lot more people would be persimmon fans if they tried them. He also enjoys eating them plain when they're perfectly ripe. But the classic cookie still captures the family's heart as their favorite way to enjoy persimmons.
"We'll take them over to our grandma's house and make sure she has a good supply of them, so that the cookies keep coming out of the kitchen," Paul Prescott said. "You just have to have them, certain times of year. Fall is here; that's what it means to me."
Cecilia Parsons contributed to this story.
Fuyu or Hachiya? When picking a persimmon, you can't really go wrong—both varieties are delicious. But to fully enjoy them, you'll need to tell them apart.
- Fuyus are squat and flat-bottomed, like an apple. They are nonastringent and can be eaten right away.
- Enjoy them crisp or let soften a few days.
- Fuyus are great for eating out of hand, sliced into fruit or green salads, or cubed and baked into desserts or in savory stuffings and alongside meats, as you would use apples.
- Let them ripen longer and they will soften to a pulp that can be pureed for baking.
- Hachiyas are shaped like an acorn or a heart. They are astringent when firm and can be eaten only when soupy ripe.
- Let them ripen, stem-down, at room temperature until they are soft and squishy, like a water balloon. This could take a few days or a matter of weeks.
- You can then chill them, slit off the stem and eat the pulp with a spoon or as a topping for yogurt or ice cream. Blend into smoothies or use to make jam.
- Pureed Hachiya pulp is ideal for baking, blending easily into batter and adding a moist richness.
- For a ripening shortcut, freeze whole Hachiya persimmons solid, then thaw. The pulp will be softened enough to use right away in recipes. For maximum flavor and tannin removal, however, slow ripening is best.
- Or, slice firm, unripe Hachiyas and dry them in the oven or food dehydrator.
Lemon glazed persimmon bars