AUTUMN – SEASON OF THE KAKI
I have a persimmon tree.
It gives me great joy throughout the year. In Spring it blushes with delicate flowers. In summer it is lush and green with tinges of warm yellow and soft red. In autumn – oh, the splendour of it – it is fire and light. In this “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, my tree develops from touches of sepia and rust, to crimsons and fiery reds and settles to colours of rose quartz and gamboge yellow. All the while, orbs of edible amber fruit hang suspended on tough stems, protected by rough leaves. My tree is beautiful even swathed with netting to protect my precious fruit from the discerning local birdlife. It looks bridal and loved.
Then as the weather turns, the leaves become a cosy yellow.
The French, as always, have a beautiful turn of phrase for the winter foliage on a tree - feuille-morte. John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, written in 1690, coined the term. In English, feuille morte means "dead leaf” and refers specifically to a brownish-orange or yellowish-brown colour. A bit prosaic compared to the sound of the French term whose use is rare in English, but it has not been entirely forgotten:
“She took out a new suit. It was of grosgrain, a shade called "feuille morte," a vivid yellow-brown trimmed with darker bands of velvet. — Anya Seton, The Turquoise.
I will find an occasion to use the description. I don’t have a suit but I am sure I own a scarf or shawl in shades of ‘feuille morte’.
At the end of autumn, the leaves, spent of their life, fall in a carpet on the earth. In some magical seasons, there remain half a dozen fruit, clinging to their branches on a naked tree. It takes my breath away. I long to be a painter to capture it.
For my purposes, as a lover of the tree and the fruit, there are two kinds to identify – the original astringent variety and the modern non astringent kind. A friend, Diana Perry, made me a gift of a non astringent fruit tree many years ago and at this time every year, I remember her generosity and bless her kindness and sweetness.
Records show that persimmon trees have been grown in China for more than 2,000 years. Persimmons are native to Japan, China, Korea, Burma, and Nepal. Diospyros kaki, also known as Oriental or Japanese persimmon, is the most widely grown cultivar. I want to believe the popular misconception that the name means “divine fruit” but sadly this is not true.
The kaki has two popular varieties: Hachiya (an astringent variety) and Fuyu (a non-astringent variety). Mine is of the Fuyu strain – a Sharon variety, from the productive Sharon valley in Israel. Right now, as winter approaches, both Fuyu and Hachiya persimmons are ripening nicely here in Adelaide.
Like the tomato, persimmons are not typically thought of as berries, but in terms of botanical morphology, they are in fact a berry. A berry, indeed, with amazing health benefits to add to their deliciousness.
Persimmons are rich in dietary fibre and many nutrients such as manganese, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and iron. They also contain several other health-promoting phyto-nutrients, such as catechin (a natural phenol and antioxidant), gallocatechin (also an antioxidant) and betulinic acid. Betulinic acid has been shown to have anti-retroviral, anti-malarial, and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as potential as an anti-cancer agent. So, in social media parlance, persimmons will save the world, cure cancer and bring world peace. I predict it will be the new “super food” before long. You read it here first.
If you’ve never eaten a persimmon, there is one thing to keep in mind so that you don’t get an unpleasant surprise when you take a first bite. All persimmons, whether of the astringent or non-astringent variety, have high levels of soluble tannins. Tannins give foods a bitter taste and chalky mouth-feel. But if you eat persimmons when fully softened, their high glucose content will reward you with a sweet and delicate flavour. So, both varieties should be eaten when ripe.
The Hachiya persimmon is the astringent type. It is an acorn-shaped fruit that is vibrantly orange when ripe. Make sure to always let this kind of persimmon fully soften before eating. The wonderful old English term – blett – applies to this type of persimmon, quince and medlar fruit. The maturing process dramatically reduces the tannin levels. When fully ripe, or bletted, the persimmon will look and feel like a very ripe tomato. Inside, you will find thick, juicy, almost jelly-like pulp. It is like eating jam on a spoon. Heaven!
Photo Credit: A few days ago, my brother arrived with a tray of astringent Hachiya persimmons with clear instructions to keep them separate from my Sharon ones, lest I confuse one for the other. This morning, this was my breakfast.
Photo Credit: again, I am reminded of John Keats' On Autumn: "....fill all fruit with ripeness to the core". Did Keats have a persimmon tree?
Super ripe Hachiya persimmons can be cut in half and scooped out with a spoon the same way you’d eat a kiwi or an avocado. They are also great for pureeing. Persimmon puree can be used in a variety of desserts, especially in pies with a cinnamon or cardamom spiced crumble on top. I recently made a fruit paste – I will give you the recipe below.
Photo credit: fruit paste, recipe follows.
Because people know I love the astringent persimmon, I often come home to find a basket at my back door with a note to indicate the provenance and the delivery address for the basket, re-filled with some of my non astringent persimmons, lemons, quinces, olives or fresh bay leaves. There is an unregulated currency among back yard gardeners – and a generosity of spirit that ups the balance sheet with every exchange.
Many Italian families planted these astringent varieties decades ago only to find that the fruit doesn’t appeal to the modern palate. To speed up the ripening process and remove the astringency of persimmons, I simply let them sit at room temperature in natural light for several days, sometimes up to a week. You can also place them in a paper bag together with a ripening banana which gives off large quantities of ethylene gas. This will speed up the ripening process to one or two days. But really they are such a beautiful fruit with their calyx attached and sometimes still holding on to a branch, that they make a striking still life on the bench.
Photo Credit: Below, my non astringent, Fuyu, tree in the front garden. The fruit in the upper, right hand corner of the photo is ready for picking, the rest can wait on the tree for a few more days or I could bring them inside and allow them to further ripen at room temperature. The calyx will come away with the fruit, then a gentle wipe with a cloth and it is ready to eat as my daily fruit.
Sometimes in markets the non astringent type is sold as ‘vanilla persimmon’. It is not actually completely free of tannins as the term suggests, so I let them colour deeply before I eat them. I eat them straight off the tree, as I would an apple. Its tannins disappear sooner in the maturation process, so you can eat this variety while still on the firm side although they are even more delicious when soft. You can add the fresh fruit to salads or slice them and dehydrate in a dryer or a very low oven.
Below, Jay Tang's persimmon caprese using non astrigent persimmons, sometimes called 'vanilla persimmons' in markets. You don't need a recipe, just a sticky, aged (proper) balsamic vinegar. (See my previous, quasi hysterical outburst on The Great Balsamic Vinegar Swindle).
This fruit and tree that charms me so much is also useful as a timber. Though persimmon trees belong to the same genus as ebony trees, persimmon tree wood is difficult to work because it cracks easily. I have seen persimmon wood in panelling for traditional Japanese furniture.
Photo Credit: wikipedia, persimmon wood. A Japanese cabinet made with persimmon.
In North America, the wood is used to manufacture billiard cues. It is also used to produce the shafts of some musical percussion mallets and drumsticks. Persimmon wood was also heavily used in making the highest-quality heads of the golf clubs known as "woods" until the golf industry moved primarily to metal woods in the last years of the 20th century.
Recipe for Persimmon Paste - this year, I used ripe, non astringent persimmons from my tree, but in the past, I have also used pulp from Hachiya persimmons.
oil, to grease
1kg just ripe persimmons, peeled, deseeded if necessary, coarsely chopped
60ml fresh lemon juice
60ml (1/4 cup) water
440g caster sugar (if using super ripe hachiya persimmons, drop the sugar to 400 g.)
extra sugar to dredge, optional
Brush an 18cm square cake pan with oil.
Place the persimmons in a large heavy-based saucepan with the lemon juice and water. Bring to the boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes or until persimmons are mushy.
Set aside for 10-15 minutes to cool slightly. Place persimmon mixture in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. Return to the pan with the sugar and stir over medium-low heat for 2-3 minutes or until the sugar dissolves. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 50 minutes or until the mixture thickens or it reaches 105°C on a sugar thermometer.
Pour the mixture into the pan. Set aside for 1 hour or until firm. Cut into pieces to serve. Just before serving, you may like to toss the cut pieces in the extra caster sugar if serving with coffee but not if you are serving it with blue vein or vintage cheddar cheese.