Saveurs of the (almost) lost ark
The Slow Food movement and regional farmers sustain endangered eats
Tosh Kuratomi and his wife, Chris, run Otow Orchard in Granite Bay, along with Chris’ mother, Helen Otow. For more than 60 years, the Otow family has prepared the farm’s Hachiya persimmons in “hoshigaki” style. This painstaking process involves peeling the unripe fruits and hanging them to dry on racks for up to eight weeks, massaging and turning every few days. They also must be carefully monitored to avoid outbreaks of mold, bruises and excessive drying.
As Laurence Hauben of Penryn Orchard Specialties, another hoshigaki maker, summed up: “It’s not everybody’s idea of something to do.”
And until recently, the price per pound earned from hoshigaki was less than $10. The farmers weren’t even making minimum wage.
Enter Joanne Neft, who came along and nominated hoshigaki to the Slow Food Ark of Taste. Now the dried persimmons sell for up to $35 a pound.
Founder of the Placer County farmers’ market, Neft has been a longtime champion of Sacramento region farmers. And the Slow Food Ark of Taste is basically a Noah’s ark for local farms’ endangered eats. As the Ark’s website explains, the list “aims to rediscover, catalog, describe and publicize forgotten flavors.” It is a metaphorical lifeboat for high-quality food products that are threatened by industrialized food, hygiene laws, the regulations of large-scale distribution and environmental issues.
Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini instituted the Ark of Taste in 1996 to cultivate consumer demand for “forgotten foods” so that they might see a resurgence. Now boasting nearly 800 products, this symbolic ark hopes to save rare flavors from the flood of flavorless mass-market fare.
Of the 200 products on the United States Ark, there are not just heirloom fruits and vegetables, but also rare breeds of meat animals, beans, salts, nuts, cheeses, grains and prepared foods, such as poi from Hawaii.
Other locally grown Ark items from the Otow, Penryn and Del Rio Botanical farms include Blenheim apricots, Crane melons, California Mission olives, Rio Oso gem peaches, tepary beans and fish peppers.
Anyone can nominate a food product to the Ark through the Slow Food website. To qualify, it must be outstanding in taste; at risk biologically or as a culinary tradition; sustainably produced; culturally or historically linked to a specific region, ethnicity or production practice; and produced in limited quantities.
It’s surprising that popular items such as Mission olives and Meyer lemons are on the Ark, but being on the list is what led to their recent resurgence. Still, other products struggle for wider recognition, such as American rabbit and Nevada single-leaf pinyon, or pine nuts.
Otow Orchard’s Kuratomi said growing less widely produced varieties “spiritually feels like a good thing.”
“People should learn to eat what survives naturally where they are, and maybe they’ll be more inclined to eat locally,” he said.
As Neft understood when nominating the hoshigaki, the dried persimmons are a prime example of the Ark of Taste ideal. These handmade, carefully tended dried fruits almost disappeared from commercial production until some Placer County farmers and compatriots staged a campaign to promote them.
Jeff Rieger began researching hoshigaki when he bought Penryn Orchard Specialties just outside Auburn in 2002. As a new farmer, Rieger wanted to maintain the history of his orchards, which had been planted at least 20 years earlier. As with many farms in the Placer area, it was once owned by a family of Asian heritage, who grew fruits that reminded them of their culture, such as persimmons, Asian pears and Mandarin oranges.
But the Ark’s goal is not just to catalog heirloom and heritage foods and preparations, but to also develop a market for them.
“If you can’t sell it, you can’t continue to produce it,” Penryn Orchard’s Hauben reminded.
Part of the campaign to increase demand was to bring wider awareness of the heritage and unique flavor of products such as hoshigaki to Sacramento-area chefs, foodies and Slow Food members. By expanding the market, the farmers could raise the price to a sustainable level—“sustainable” in this case meaning that it simply can be continued instead of being lost to the realities of economics.
But now, at least the hoshigaki, which sell for between $23 and $35 a pound, are just as time-consuming to tend to but come with the promise of better dollars as an incentive to continue their production.
Then again, it’s never really been about the money. “When I tasted hoshigaki,” Hauben rhapsodized, “and discovered the tradition, it was almost a responsibility to continue it. If you can help continue a food tradition, you are honoring culture and human heritage.”
Kuratomi calls forgotten flavors such as hoshigaki “memory foods.” “We like a lot of fruits from the ’50s and ’60s,” he said, “because they have good flavor and texture, even if they have a short shelf life.
“Once we knew about the Ark of Taste, we understood why we would want to preserve those traditions.”
But most produce departments are driven by uniformity and cheap shipping costs—and have been since World War II—so many delicious but tender or odd-looking products have been lost favor. The Ark is a repository for the absolutely best-tasting things.
“It’s rewarding when we get customers who say, ‘Wow! That’s the most amazing pear I’ve tasted,’” Hauben said, “or ‘These are the best persimmons.’ That really makes you happy.
“It’s so sad when you go into a market and see the same few varieties year-round when there are hundreds and hundreds of varieties. Food is not just about filling your belly. It’s really about a relationship to the Earth.”
And for those who care, the Ark fortunately continues to grow—and not just in the United States, but in many other countries as well. It’s a fascinating collection of Old World flavors and products, and one that likely won’t be just a food time capsule, but instead a means to foster newfound appreciation for the importance of food and tradition in our lives.