Excerpt from Persimmons by Li-Young Lee
I am always intrigued by exotic things mentioned in poems. As a child, I longed to know what sandalwood and cedarwood smelled like after reading the wonderful Cargoes by John Masefield. I spent many hours looking up pictures of dulcimers in the wake of studying Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. But I never did find the frumious bandersnatch in the Encyclopaedia Britannica though Even now, years later, I am intrigued by poetic descriptions although latterly it is more the food descriptions that catch my eye. It can be so difficult to write about the specific feelings or memories that a food evokes, and when it is done well it makes you want to go back and read the lines over and over again, like rolling a sweet over and over in your mouth to prolong the taste. That’s exactly what Persimmons (the poem excerpted above) made me want to do and the beautiful full text is definitely worth reading, if you’re so inclined.
The persimmon is a fruit that I did not really grow up with but if it was beguiling enough for people to write poems about, I wanted to know more. The excuse to do a bit of research arrived in the shape of a small basket of smooth, golden persimmons from Foods of Spain that recently landed on my desk. It’s a fruit that’s native to Asia (although some species originated in America) and that goes by many names: the kaki fruit, the date-plum, the sharon fruit, and of course the persimmon – a word that originated in the 1600s from the native American Powhatan (Algonquian) word pasimenan, meaning dried fruit. It’s not immediately apparent why you’d want to describe something as voluptuous as a persimmon as being dried in any way. Clearly it was time for more research.
There are generally two types of persimmons that are commercially available and they can broadly be classified into astringent, and non astringent. Non-astringent persimmons are round and squat in shape, almost like a slightly flattened tomato, and are most commonly sold as fuyu. The astringency refers not to acid as such, but to the presence of free tannins, the same chemical compounds that occur in tea and red wine and that make your mouth pucker and feel dry. Non-astringent persimmons are not actually free of tannins as the term suggests, but rather are far less astringent before ripening, and lose more of their tannic quality sooner. This means that, unlike their astringent cousins, they can be eaten when still very firm (like a hard pear) and remain edible when very soft.
The most commonly sold variety of astringent persimmon is the Hachiya – instantly distinguishable from the fuyu by its slightly elongated heart shape. Their astringency is due to high levels of soluble tannins, making the, taste “furry” if eaten before they are completely softened. They ripen quite happily after being picked and strategies for ripening include exposure to light for several days, or wrapping the fruit in paper (probably because this increases the ethylene concentration of the surrounding air). Ethylene ripening can be also be accelerated by storing the ripening persimmons in a clean, dry container together with other varieties of fruit that give off particularly large quantities of ethylene such as apples, pears or bananas. But rather than something like a peach that you want to ripen until it is just softening, you want your persimmons to reach the extreme end of ripeness, just this side of going mouldy!
The process of extreme ripening, if you will, is also referred to as bletting and can also be used for other super-astringent fruits like medlars, sea buckthorn and quinces. The popular misconception is that persimmons are to be ripened till rotten but this is not the case. There is no decay involved, just ripeness to the point where the flesh is fully soft and almost jelly-like, at which stage the skin might be starting to split and the dried-out calyx can easily be plucked out of the fruit before serving. This is often a good sign that the soft fruit is ready to eat, preferable simply scooped off the skin with a teaspoon. These fruit were photographed when not yet fully ripe and soft as they are more photogenic and easier to handle this way, but those I did not use up still got a whole lot softer!
As I mentioned, my persimmons came from Spain – which is unsurprising as the country is the major European producer of persimmons. Spain produces 70,000 tons of persimmons annually, although this is still dwarfed by production in Asia that easily tops 2 million tons annually. As persimmons ripen easily off the tree and bruise when ripe, most fruit is shipped when it is not yet ripe enough to eat, leaving the customer to ripen them at home. Signs that your persimmons are ripening include the fact that the calyx (the green petals around the stem) have turned brown and dry; and the fact that the fruit is changing colour from sunny yellow to a beautiful autumnal amber. If you are eating firm fuyu persimmons, you can simply cut them into wedges like an apple; but if you have fully ripened your persimmon then the only way to eat it is to cut in half and scoop the soft fresh off the skin with a spoon. If you have a glut, you can also freeze persimmon puree for up to 8 months – just add add 1½ Tbsp of lemon juice per 1 cup of puree to prevent discolouration.
DISCLOSURE: These persimmons were sent to me for free by Foods from Spain. No other remuneration was received for this post ad all opinions are my own.
PERSIMMON AND CRANBERRY CRISP (serves 4)
6 very ripe large Hachiya persimmons
2/3 cup dried cranberries
75ml peach or mango juice
1/2 cup quick-cooking rolled oats
75g butter, melted
1/3 cup soft brown sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup pecan nuts, choppedMethod
Preheat the oven to 180C and lightly butter 4 large ovenproof ramekins.
Cut the persimmons in half, scoop out the pulp using a spoon and chop it finely on a cutting board – it needs to be almost a chunky puree. Place the persimmon pulp in a large mixing bowl and mix in the cranberries and juice. Divide the mixture equally between the ramekins.
For the topping, combine all the dry ingredients in a medium bowl, then stir in the butter and mix well. Scatter the topping evenly on the fruit in each ranekin, pressing down lightly to form a “lid”. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes amd serve hot with clotted cream.
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