You might be thinking pumpkin, but the start of autumn gets me thinking persimmon. The persimmon trees in our orchard are around 40 years old, and I’ll admit when we first moved in I’d never actually eaten one. Despite growing well in much of New Zealand, persimmons are not yet widely cultivated by home gardeners or commercial growers, and they’re not found growing wild here in woodlands like some parts of the US.
We had both the astringent and non-astringent varieties. The astringent ones must be nearly rotten to be considered edible, but the non-astringent varieties can be eaten crunchy like an apple and are a much easier proposition. Even if you don’t like the fruit, I’d recommend growing the tree for the beauty of its pinky/orange fall color and the show of a tree festooned with baubles of orange. The non-astringent varieties, like Fuyu, are compact little trees, while the astringent ones are upright and can get quite tall.
A local woodturner told me the timber is incredibly hard but springy and used to be used to make golf clubs and bowling alleys. When I accidentally cut the pollinator out I learned that some varieties are self-fertile and without the pollinator the fruit didn’t set any seeds. They’ve been incredibly low maintenance and apart from birds they are not prone to pests and disease. I haven’t even pruned them properly but each year they are loaded with fruit.
But I still had no idea what to do with them in the kitchen, and I didn’t like them very much. We had a lot of them, and it seemed a crime to feed them all to the sheep. They ripened when the orchard wasn’t offering anything else to eat, so I persisted. I made pies, chutney’s, jams and salsas but we still didn’t get along, me and the persimmon. My husband would eat a few fresh but talking with an elderly Aunt; she told me to stop wasting good ingredients trying to improve something I didn’t like which was good advice.
So for a few seasons, I gave them away which was the best thing I ever did. Finding people who appreciated them taught me what to do with them. A couple of elderly Italian women would come out and load up their baskets each fall, patting my husband on the arm and squirreling parcels of homemade nougat and ratafia biscuits to him like he needed feeding. He began to like the persimmons even more.
The Italian mamas threaded the astringent persimmons on a string and hung them up under a sheltered sunny porch, then scooped out the flesh with a spoon when it was clear jelly-like consistency. Another Italian couple came bearing jars of pesto, and they had the same plan for the persimmons. I tried it, but I like to chew my food, and the overwhelming sweetness of the fruit was still not to my taste.
Japanese friends were delighted to come and pick persimmons and on a return visit they produced some of the astringent ones that they dried using a traditional air-drying technique known as Hoshigaki. The consistency was like a chewy date, and the flavor was complex, as a good caramel. These I liked.
There are some quite elaborate preparations you can make for Hoshigaki, but their method was simple:
• pick with a little stalk remaining
• peel and dip each briefly in boiling water
• thread a string through the stalk
• hang in a cool, very dry place with a good breeze
• after several weeks they will be shrunken and wrinkly
If it is too humid or warm, this method will not work, and the fruit will rot instead of drying, but the cool and dry late fall weather of Northern Japan is apparently ideal for making this delicacy. This method is mother nature slowly air-drying the whole fruit. If I tried it in the food dehydrator, the outer flesh would dry well before the inner, and it wouldn’t get that even, chewy texture throughout.
In the years that followed, I also perfected a way of drying the non-astringent persimmons in my food dehydrator that is a good substitute for dried mango (which doesn’t grow here). The lime juice gives a good balance to the sweetness of the persimmon and also acts as an extra preservative. Jars of these dried persimmon slices store perfectly well for a year in the pantry before the next harvest ripens. I use them in trail mix, breakfast muesli and as crackers on a cheese platter.
Dried Persimmon Slices
• Pick firm ripe fruit
• Wash them well
• Slice into rings, skin and all. I used to peel and core them but I found the core dries to nothing, and the skin is perfectly edible.
• Slice into rounds with a mandolin to get the same thickness. Then they’re all done at the same time. I set mine for approx 4mm slices.
• Dip each slice in a big bowl of lime juice and lay them out on the dehydrator trays.
• Dry overnight and check in the morning – let them cool, and if they snap crisply they’re done
• Let them cool completely and then pack them in glass jars with an airtight lid and store on the shelf.
I hope you enjoyed that “love the one you’re with” tale. What new tricks can you all teach me about persimmons this fall?