The traditional Japanese art of making the dried persimmons called hoshigaki is a mind-bogglingly labor-intensive artisanal process. The fruits of the acorn-shaped Hachiya variety are harvested firm, peeled by hand, strung up to dry for a month or so and manually massaged to break up their fibers and keep their flesh soft. If all goes well (and there's a lot that can go wrong), the surface of the finished product is covered with a fine white powdered sugar naturally exuded by the fruit. The flesh within has a tender but chewy texture and a sweet, spicy flavor, like raisins and gingerbread.
In Japan, hoshigaki were the primary form of dried fruit stored for the winter when few fresh fruits other than citrus were available. Starting in the late 19th century, Japanese immigrants to California, particularly in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento and in the San Joaquin Valley, continued this practice. But as the descendants of the original immigrants died out or sold their farms, hoshigaki-making declined and seemed headed for oblivion.
Starting a decade ago, however, the renewed interest in artisanal foodways led to a small-scale hoshigaki revival. Jeff Rieger, who bought an old Japanese orchard in Penryn in 2002, has become a passionate hoshigaki maker and promoter, encouraging some of the few remaining producers to market their fruit as a premium product for a sustainable price.
Rieger takes the craft of hoshigaki-making very seriously, comparing the different styles of fruit available from various producers to the diverse styles of winemakers. During hoshigaki season, he is a man possessed, exhausted but exhilarated by his pursuit of perfection.
Rieger offers his hoshigaki by mail order and at the Santa Monica Wednesday market, where he sells them by the box, offering a few as individual fruits so those unfamiliar with the product can experience it. Because his production is very limited, Rieger asks that buyers who want to buy boxes preorder them by visiting his website to read the terms and then send him a message. The cost is $35 a pound, and boxes typically contain eight or nine fruits and weigh a little over a pound.
Orders submitted now should be available around New Year's, the most traditional time for giving hoshigaki as presents. Hoshigaki quickly turn hard and tough if left on the counter in open air, but keep well for months in the box Rieger provides, becoming firmer and drier in texture. More and more sugar appears on the surface over time, until the fruits are completely covered in snowy white powder.
December is typically the nadir of production for California strawberries in terms of quantity, as commercial growers are replanting for the next season's crop. The berries are subject to damage from frost and rains. And if the plants have been in the ground all year, they are tired and their berries are small, so most commercial producers can't be bothered. During winter, Florida, which is in its dry season, is the nation's leading source for strawberries.
Although production is much lower, local strawberries are fantastically firm and flavorful at this time of year when everything goes right. The berries mature more slowly, their texture is firmer, and their flavor is more intense.
No one does a better job (or charges more for it, $5.50 a pint) than Harry's Berries, famous for harvesting berries red all the way to the top. Their old crop will continue until the end of January, when the new crop comes in; during this low season they sell only at Santa Monica Saturday (Organic) and Wednesday, and Beverly Hills on Sunday.
Quality and quantity do vary from week to week, depending on rain and the plants' vegetative cycles. But at their best, winter strawberries are a real treat.
Cara Cara navel oranges
It is not that often that a new fruit type hits the mainstream, but the pink-fleshed Cara Cara navel orange, a sport of the traditional Washington variety that originated on the Hacienda Cara Cara in Venezuela in the 1970s, is a noteworthy example.
Although introduced to California relatively recently, in the 1990s, the Cara Cara is now grown on some 3,800 acres. The fruit is pigmented with lycopene, the carotenoid also found in pink grapefruit and guavas. It has a mild, fruity flavor and is low in acidity, so it matures relatively early — December in the San Joaquin Valley, and a month or so later in Southern California. Its beautiful coloration — a light pinkish blush on the rind, deep salmon pink on the inside — is most pronounced now, in early season. It gets lighter over the months, unlike true blood oranges, which are pigmented with anthocyanins and get steadily darker.