My fascination with persimmons began on a chilly December morning two years ago when Ignacio Sanchez, a farmer in the Central Valley, took me to the yard of a Japanese neighbor. He pointed out a tree, bare of leaves, with small, round, bright orange fruits blazing against the azure sky. When he cut one open, it had speckled brown flesh that was juicy and sweet, with an intriguing cinnamon flavor.
“It’s a Maru persimmon,” Sanchez said. “That’s the best kind. Lots of Japanese have them in their yards--but you can’t find them anywhere else.”
Most Southern Californians know about the two main types of persimmon--the flat, crunchy Fuyu and the acorn-shaped Hachiya, which is edible only when ripe and soft. But there are hundreds of other varieties. Furthermore, the persimmon has the power to command an almost mystical devotion. In Japan, it enjoys much the same cultural significance as the apple does in ours.
This reverence is not limited to Japan. In Westwood, Art Schroeder, professor emeritus of subtropical horticulture at UCLA, supervised a comprehensive collection of persimmon trees until they were cut down in 1960 to make way for the UCLA Medical Center.
At his home in Santa Monica’s Rustic Canyon, he still has a file of agricultural bulletins and treatises dating back to the 1910s and 1920s, many written in Japanese, and accompanied by exquisitely detailed drawings and handwritten translations--labors of love from boosters and philosophers of the persimmon.
From these fragile, yellowing pages and faded images emerged a vision of the glory years of California persimmons in the 1920s, when growers offered dozens of rare and fine varieties, and devotees immersed themselves in esoteric lore.
Could there be even a faint echo of those riches in today’s California? Were there more Marus waiting to be discovered?
To find out, I set off on a two-week, 3,000-mile tour of the state’s persimmon producers, both commercial and unconventional.
The first stop was at the Valley Center orchard of Jim Bathgate, president of the California Fuyu Growers Assn. His family began growing Hachiyas in San Juan Capistrano in the 1920s; after selling the land to developers in the 1970s, he moved to his current location, 35 miles north of San Diego, where he grows three acres of Fuyus.
“What got this area going in the mid-'70s was the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people, who were more familiar with Fuyus than Hachiyas,” said Bathgate, threading his way through a jungle of trees, their limbs sagging to the ground with golden fruit. In season, which reaches its peak in November and early December, he said, many Asians drive to the area to pick their own Fuyus.
It turns out, however, that almost none of these fruits are actually of the true Fuyu variety. Though it is still the most popular variety in Japan, where it originated around 1900, the true Fuyu, Bathgate explained, is incompatible with the rootstock preferred by American nurseries. So they offer the Jiro, which is similar but flatter and squarer, and has faint lines running down the middle of the sides.
“The true Fuyu has a slightly softer texture, but it’s less sweet,” said Bathgate. “I don’t consider it a better fruit.”
For marketing to the public, the Fuyu name now stands generically for all similar varieties of non-astringent persimmons--so when you buy fruits marketed as Fuyus, they’re probably really Jiros.
At an early stage of ripeness, Fuyus are pale yellow and crunchy-hard, like a firm apple, with a mild pumpkin flavor. Later they turn deep orange and are softer, juicier and sweeter. Most are seedless, though a few seeds can sometimes be found.
One notable variation on the theme is the Giant Fuyu, a large, round, extra-sweet variety that’s mostly sold at farmers markets because it doesn’t have the shelf life required for commercial shipments.
Those Old-Time Hachiyas
The Hachiya is an entirely different animal. It’s the archetype of astringent persimmons, which, when unripe, pucker the mouth with the soluble tannins in their flesh. This astringency disappears when the fruit ripens, as its golden-orange pulp softens to a custardy, almost gelatinous consistency, with a honey-sweet flavor. Hachiyas can be eaten fresh, with a spoon, but are mostly used in the kitchen, in puddings, ice creams, breads and cookies.
The center of Hachiya production is in the San Joaquin Valley. In the fall the orchards are a riot of flaming orange conical fruit. When I stopped by to see Art Wiebe in Reedley on a hot afternoon at the beginning of harvest, he was hitching a ’48 Ford tractor to his “bucket wagon,” hauling just-picked fruit to his old-fashioned wooden packing shed. Crusty and vigorous at age 79, he hardly broke a sweat as he toted buckets for the women to pack, stacked boxes of persimmons and operated the forklift.
“I started out with a few trees in 1960, when growing persimmons was just a hobby for most people, and gradually built it up to 17 acres,” he said.
In this country, most Hachiyas are sold to be eaten fresh, but in Japan, they are primarily raised for drying. Probably a half dozen farms in California still practice this ancient, intricate art today.
At Takasaki Farms in Parlier, a few miles from Reedley, the driveway and yard were covered with trays of Hachiyas in various stages of drying, from the yellow beehives of the recently peeled fruit to the dark, wizened shapes of the half-finished product. Even more remarkable, however, was the Takasakis’ house, festooned with strands of drying persimmons.
Jon Takasaki, a cheerful man of 39 who makes his living as a peach and nectarine farmer, explained that when the persimmons are to be strung up along the wall in this traditional manner, they are clipped from the tree with a T-shaped bit of stem attached so that a plastic fishing line can be slip-knotted to the stems. Either tray drying or wall drying is really labor-intensive, he said, because everything has to be done by hand. Luckily, he had his family to help.
The Art of Hachiya Massage
Sure enough, his Uncle Nob and Aunt Fusa came out and started to knead the fruits between their thumbs and forefingers to break down the fibers and facilitate evaporation.
“The more you massage them, the better they come out,” said Nob. “It helps keep the meat inside tender, a little like Kobe beef cattle. We massage them maybe once a week for four or five weeks.”
Over this time, sugar crystals exude onto the surface, and the final product is covered with a fine white powder and has a doughy texture and a taste like that of figs or dates.
As it grew dark the Takasakis covered the trays with plastic tarps.
“We have to cover them or bring them indoors every night,” said Nob. “Otherwise the fruits will soak up the dew like a sponge. It’s a big gamble, drying fruit during the rainy season. It’s scary--you can lose everything in one week.”
Nob started drying Hachiyas 50 years ago, just a few strings for his own and his family’s use, and to give to friends for Christmas and New Year’s. He and his nephew began selling their surplus to the Los Angeles market 10 years ago, found there was money to be made and started drying more.
Such dried persimmons, hoshigaki, were once a major food source and sweetener in Japan, since sugar cane and sugar beet were not grown there. Almost every Japanese garden had its persimmon tree, and the trees are still ubiquitous.
Chocolate and Cinnamon
But all of this was bringing me no closer to the elusive cinnamon- and chocolate-flavored persimmons that started my search. In California, it seemed that home gardens were the only sources. Everyone loved the fruits, but no one sold them.
The reasons varied. Some growers had problems with customers who thought the dark-fleshed fruits were spoiled, said Craig Ito, a major grower and shipper in Reedley. On the other hand, some unwanted customers find the fruits too delicious--Mits Kawahara of Riverside says opossums and raccoons devour his Chocolate persimmons if he doesn’t pick them underripe.
But the major obstacle is more technical. To develop sweet, dark flesh, the darker varieties need to be fully pollinated,and this doesn’t always happen. If only one or two seeds form, the seeded portion of the fruit will be brown and delicious, while the unseeded part will be inedibly puckery.
For commercial sales, such unpredictability is the kiss of death. Most often, the growers who have a few trees, such as Toshi and Yaeko Goto of Gardena, keep crates of colored persimmons in their truck when they sell at farmers markets, reserved for customers who already know about them.
Kay Ryugo, a retired professor of pomology (fruit science) at UC Davis, is one such persimmon connoisseur. A gentle, scholarly man of 80, he spends his time building violins, making ceramics and tending his elegant Japanese garden, which includes several dark-fleshed persimmon trees.
The Japanese term for dark-fleshed varieties, he said, is “goma,” literally sesame seed, though it usually means black sesame seed--easy to visualize in the speckling of the flesh. And the Chocolate variety, a pointy, intensely dark cultivar common in California, is actually the old Japanese Tsurunoko, the “Child of a Stork.”
In the kitchen of his home just off campus, he offered me a Maru, still crunchy but sweet. “I think the Maru is at its best when it starts to soften,” he said. “It should be buttery and juicy, but not gelatinous like a Hachiya. In an ideal world, you’d wait for them to get softer than this, but if you did, birds would get them.”
He also explained why dark-fleshed persimmons need to be pollinated, and why they taste so good: One of his students found that alcohol exuding from the seeds causes the astringent tannins in the flesh to clump together, turn brown and develop more flavor.
Ryugo showed me a Japanese umbrella varnished with green persimmon juice; his wife, Masako, offered tea made with persimmon leaves and told Japanese folk tales about persimmons.
Then we drove out to the University’s persimmon collection at the Wolfskill Farm in Winters. No one else pays much attention to the grand old trees (modern pomologists focus on more commercially important crops), but Ryugo at least enjoys the harvest from the best of the several dozen varieties each fall. We tasted a lusciously honeyed, ripe Saijo, one of the main astringent varieties in parts of Japan, but unknown here because of its small size.
We saw one tree with leaves already turning yellow: an American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, native to the Eastern United States, bearing small, seedy soft ripe golden fruits tasting like flowery caramel pudding.
But with all of these persimmons to choose from, Ryugo said his favorite was still a goma from his childhood, the Hyakume.
“When I was young, my father was in the wholesale produce business in Sacramento,” he said. “He used to buy Hyakumes from small plantings in Placer County, all grown by first-generation Japanese-Americans. But no one grows them any more.”
The Goma at the End of the Rainbow
The clue was tantalizing: if there was any chance of finding the elusive cinnamon persimmons, it might be in this traditional growing area, or what remained of it.
Searching the Internet I found a certain Howard Nakae of Newcastle who grew persimmons that he called “Howard’s Amagaki” in the foothills east of Sacramento, the heart of Placer County’s old persimmon belt.
As soon as we got out to his orchard, I recognized, from the drawings in my Japanese books, the roundish, buff-yellow fruits, marked with distinctive fine russet lines: Hyakumes!
But when I cut one open and was about to take a bite, I realized something was wrong: the flesh was yellow and astringent, not brown and sweet: it hadn’t been pollinated! Nakae did manage to find me a few seeded, cinnamon-fleshed fruits, which were as exquisite and rich-flavored as I had dreamed. But only 5% of the 10-acre orchard was goma, he said.
What did he do with the rest?
“When my family bought this orchard in 1934,” Nakae said, “there were a few Hyakume trees, but we couldn’t do anything with them because they were puckery--you could only eat them soft like Hachiyas. My mother said that in Japan they had ways to get the pucker out. We started treating them with alcohol, but the fruit got soft, and it left a smell. Over the years, though, we finally got it right.”
At his packing house, Nakae showed me the closet-like room where he carried out this process, but declined to reveal how it was done. Perhaps it’s a variation on the old Japanese method of de-puckering astringent persimmons in sake barrels. However, it was done, the de-puckered, yellow-fleshed Hyakumes, which Nakae sells wholesale and by mail order, are delicious.
But I had an inspiration: From Art Schroeder’s archive, which I had carried to Newcastle with me, I showed Nakae a 1910 treatise by a Japanese marquis, telling how to pollinate the Hyakume. His eyes grew wide.
Then I put him on the phone with Kay Ryugo, the expert. They spoke excitedly.
It’s a small start, but the glory days of California persimmons may be coming back, or at least a taste of them.