Autumn, or l'autunno, is my absolute favorite food season in Rome. At no other time of year will I find all of my favorites converging upon the market, at their peak, simultaneously. Puntarella and broccoli romanesco, porcini and ovoli, zucca and chestnuts, pears, apples and clementines-each one is enough to make me swoon with happiness. But then persimmons come along in the midst of all the bounty and put me right over the top.
If you've never sunk a spoon into a soft, oozing persimmon, you are truly missing one of life's greatest pleasures. The problem is, obtaining a persimmon just at the edge of perfection can be difficult, and ripening one at home often doesn't work out. If you attempt eating too soon, an unripe persimmon can be so astringent it rips the lining of your palate right off. But when ripe and unctuous, a persimmon is a thing of wonder-soft, juicy, and sweet as syrup. When a persimmon is perfect, and perfectly ripe, no dessert creation can top it.
Luckily, I've endured no disappointing persimmons in Rome, because Italians innately understand how to purchase and serve them. It is not uncommon for folks in the smaller towns and countryside to have a persimmon tree in their yards, or spot them, heavy with fruit, in parks and piazzas.
Types of Persimmons
In the United States, you'll find two types of persimmons in specialty markets. Hachiya persimmons are oblong in shape, with a slightly pointed end. These are the astringent ones to be the most careful with; high in tannins, you can only eat them when fully ripe or you will have a screwy look on your face for hours.
Fuyu persimmons are round and squat, like a flat tomato, and the variety most often found in Italy. Their skin is very delicate, so often you will see them ripening in individual, padded cups. Fuyus are supposedly also ready eat when unripe and firm, but there is very little sweetness present then, and although the level of astringent tannins is far lower, they simply aren't as luscious as when ripe, so I don't understand the point. When it comes to the so-called "fruit of the gods," ripeness is the key.
How and When to Eat
Both varieties reach their peak of sweetness and flavor when they are very soft and oozing, like a water balloon about to explode. At a restaurant in Italy, if you ask for a ripe persimmon after your meal, it will arrive ready to eat with a spoon. The waiter flips it over, deftly removes part of the stem end, cuts it into quarters that remain attached on the bottom, and fans it out on the plate. Simply insert your spoon in the side of each quarter and scoop. The skin of a fuyu is thin enough to eat in most instances, but you should be mindful of the rows of seeds and try to work your spoon around them.
The time to enjoy persimmons is so fleeting, there is no reason not to have one every day that it is possible; the peak season is November and December on both sides of the Atlantic. You can scoop the flesh out of ripe persimmons, purée gently, and freeze to enjoy later on or make a few jars of jam. Baking with them is possible too, but a bit tricky; hachiyas will require baking soda added to the recipe to prevent the tannin from coming through in the final product, and with both varieties it will prevent the color of the cake or cookie from becoming too dark. For smoothies or when storing the purée, lemon juice will keep it from oxidizing.
Italians are not the only persimmon experts-they are also wildly popular in China, India, Korea, and Japan, where even more varieties are available. In Italy, the word to know is cachi, (pronounced cah-kee), and remember to add, molto maturi, per favore.
About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States sharing recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats.