Meet the persimmon, the Sacramento region’s most misunderstood produce
That time of year has again fallen upon us when the low-riding sun glows golden each afternoon and slips beneath the horizon before we’re even home from work. Meanwhile, a good many folks are again asking, “Why are there tomatoes growing in the neighbors’ tree?!”
But we know they’re not tomatoes, and for the fruit savvy, they’re obviously persimmons, now coming into the peak of their crop. These beautiful fruits—Diospyros kaki, native to eastern Asia and introduced to California in the mid-1800s—begin to ripen in late September, and in some varieties, may persist until late December and January. Within the species are two general forms—the “hard kind” and the “soft kind,” generally referred to as the Fuyu and the Hachiya, respectively—but this is a simplification that erroneously encompasses a very diverse plant. In fact, D. kaki occurs in hundreds of cultivars, each with a name of its own. There is indeed a Fuyu persimmon, and there is indeed a Hachiya persimmon, but the others deserve recognition and should not be eclipsed by these pseudonyms.
There is the dainty Okogoshu, the giant Izu and the early-fruiting Matsumoto Wase Fuyu. There is the Fujiwaragosho, the Kishimoto, the Gyombo and many more blessed with musical Japanese names. There are three varieties often categorized as “chocolate” persimmons—the Maru, Hyakume and Nagamaru—which attain a finely speckled brown in their flesh and an enhanced sweetness if the pre-fruit blossoms were pollinated in the spring.
Of all the varieties, Jenny Smith favors the Izu in the “hard” category and the Yotsumizu in the “soft” category. Smith is an expert of experts. She oversees the persimmon plot at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wolfskill Experimental Orchards near Winters, which boasts 143 persimmon cultivars amidst a cornucopia of many other fruits.
Smith says a prevailing misperception of persimmons is that they bear an astringency that makes the mouth pucker. It’s true: This sensation can occur, but only if one eats unripe soft types, like the Hachiya. If simply allowed to ripen on the branch or in a paper bag until they feel like a water balloon, these fruits become as sweet as wine grapes—Smith has measured them in the lab at 26 Brix—and creamy as pudding. Like so, they are best eaten fresh with a spoon, scooped from the skin like a bowl of custard.
In Brentwood, Mike Arata planted 6 acres of persimmons 30 years ago. Those were the glory days, he remembers, of high demand and encouraging prices. Demand today remains high, says Arata, but the market has cooled. So what changed? Supply, of course. Vast orchards were planted north of Sacramento in the past two decades, depressing wholesale prices to the point where Arata can no longer afford to invest in seasonal orchard management. He simply picks and sells, then forgets about the trees until the next crop swells.
Otow Orchard near Granite Bay is an ideal venue to taste multiple persimmon types side by side. The farm grows eight cultivars, which sell onsite at $2 per pound. The farm also offers a very unique product—hoshigaki, a form of hand-peeled Hachiyas and Gyombos strung on a rack, massaged by hand twice a week for a month, then sold as a sticky dried fruit somewhat like a date. A traditional delicacy, Otow’s hoshigaki persimmons run $25 to $39 per pound.
Persimmons eaten fresh from the branch best reveal the virtues of the cultivar at hand, but the fruits may do well prepared in a variety of ways—savory and sweet—stir-fries, puddings, chutneys and more; Smith at the USDA likes to substitute soft-type persimmons for pumpkin in her Thanksgiving pie recipes. And at Otow Orchard, manager Tosh Kuratomi says he recently grew curious about a customer who purchases two dozen persimmons each week. Turns out he was making Fuyu smoothies. Mystery solved.