Persimmons are harbingers of winter. They show up in October and November, just in time to bake into loaves of spiced bread for Thanksgiving or slice up for holiday salads. In California, where most of the crop in the US grows, they are one of the few trees that actually changes color as the weather cools, providing a fleeting glimpse of traditional fall colors.
When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, most of the persimmons I ate came from trees that grew in friends’ backyards. Once the leaves started turning, we would wait for the fruit—big, orange orbs that had a point at the end, kind of like acorns—to ripen and hope that the birds didn’t get to them before we could. For a long time, I thought of persimmons as a special treat you had to wait for, a fruit you had to pick at exactly the right moment. So it was a bit of a shock a few years ago when I walked into a generic supermarket and found they were selling big boxes of persimmons; I could get a whole crate for under ten dollars.
At some point in the past fifteen years, the persimmon went from little-known specialty fruit to a budding mass-market star. While persimmons have been cultivated in the US since the 1850s, they were long considered a niche product; they were primarily sold in Asian markets, specialty stores like Dean & DeLuca, and farmers markets in California. Today, you can buy the fruit in crates—like the ones that cradle dozens of mandarin oranges—in stores like Costco or Trader Joe’s, and at very affordable prices. Just because persimmons are becoming widely available, however, doesn't mean that consumers are getting the best fruits available—or even that they know what to look for.
Persimmons are a tree fruit related to the date plum, the black sapote, and the mabolo. Most cultivated persimmons are variants of the species Diospyros kaki (sometimes called Oriental persimmons, Japanese persimmons, or kaki), which is native to China and is found in Japan, Myanmar, the Himalayas, and parts of northern India. There’s also a second, related species of persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, which is native to the Eastern US but produces much smaller fruit than the Asian persimmon.
Persimmon sub-species can be broken into two categories: astringent persimmons, which are inedible when firm and need to become extremely ripe and soft before they can be eaten, and non-astringent persimmons, which can be eaten hard or soft, with the skin on. In the US, the best-known non-astringent persimmon is the round, squat Fuyu. Non-astringent persimmons have become popular in big box stores, not only because they can be shipped and stored more easily than softer varieties, but also because American consumers appear to prefer the texture and like to cut them up for salads or eat them out of hand, like apples. Today, California growers produce roughly 10,000 tons of these fruits every fall.
The best-known astringent persimmon is the Hachiya, an oblong fruit with an acorn-like shape. When ripe, they have a very soft, slippery texture (some might say slimy). In Japan, Hachiyas are turned into a popular sweet, hoshigaki, which is made by peeling the ripe fruit, hanging it carefully from a pole, and gently massaging it every day so that its juices evaporate and its sugars are drawn out to coat the exterior. The result is sweet and dense and slightly chewy—the Kobe beef of dried fruit. In the US, Hachiyas are mostly used to make baked goods, like persimmon bread.
But in recent years other astringent varieties have actually come to dominate much of the persimmon market, thanks to the discovery, in the 1970s, of a method for removing the tannins from astringent persimmons so that they can be eaten while still firm. The first fruit to be treated and marketed using this process was the Sharon fruit, a persimmon grown in Israel and named for the Sharon plain, where many are grown. Sharon fruit have always been popular for their sweetness (astringent persimmons are generally sweeter than their non-astringent siblings), but in the ‘60s, when they started coming to market, consumers had to wait until they were fully softened to eat them. Now, thanks to this new process, which involves exposing the fruit to air enriched with CO2, Sharon fruit can be eaten hard, like Fuyus. And they’re just as sweet as they are when ripened naturally.
“Not all persimmon types are very sweet,” says Meir Ben-Artzy, the chief executive of the Israel-based exotic fruit company Mor International. “If you look at the Fuyu, the brix,” a measure of how much sugar is present in the fruit, “is about eleven, twelve, thirteen. But the Sharon fruit is about twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four. It’s very, very sweet.”
Due to the fruit’s high sugar content, Sharon fruit can even be frozen without causing any damage to the fruit, which allows growers to store and ship them more easily. While about 80% of Israel’s crop is sold domestically, Meir ships some Sharon fruit to the US, primarily to H-Mart and Costco. He and other Israeli growers have also begun growing Sharon fruit in South Africa, where the fruit ripens in the spring and early summer.
Another astringent variety that has become wildly popular, thanks again to the ability to artificially remove the tannins, is the Rojo Brillante, a deep orange fruit grown primarily in Spain. While not quite as sweet as Sharon fruit, the Rojo Brillante has become so popular across Europe that Spain now produces 400,000 tonnes a year, and growers there are still planting more trees. (For comparison, Israel produces about 30,000 tons of Sharon fruit in Israel and 6,000 in South Africa in an average year.)
While these varieties—Hachiya, Fuyu, Sharon fruit, and Rojo Brillante—have the most market share, some small growers still produce a whole host of other sub-species. Some of these species, like the dark brown “chocolate” persimmon, are increasingly popular with chefs and fruit connoisseurs, while others have likely never been properly categorized.
“Here's the deal with persimmons; they're incredibly genetically fluid,” says Jeff Rieger, a fruit farmer in Placer County, California. “If you have a Fuyu tree, and another guy has a Fuyu tree, unless they came from exactly the same place, I will guarantee you they are different.” This extreme genetic fluidity comes from the persimmon’s penchant to “sport”—to grow a branch that produces a completely different kind of fruit from the rest of the tree. Because of the trees’ genetic mobility, there has never been a complete taxonomic study of persimmons, and growers can’t be completely sure what varieties they have. To make matters worse, persimmons are notoriously fickle; about fifty percent of grafts fail, and healthy trees can die for no obvious reason a couple years into their growth.
Rieger grows a number of different persimmon varieties (along with dozens of other specialty fruits) at Penryn Orchard, a small, four-and-a-half-acre farm. He and his partner, Laurence Hauben, grow Hachiyas for hoshigaki (which they make themselves), but most of their varieties can be eaten firm: there are tsurunoko (“chocolate persimmons”), maru (“cinnamon” persimmons), hyakume (“brown sugar” persimmons), gosho (“giant Fuyu”). They also grow tamopan (“mango” persimmons), and tanenashi, both of which have to be eaten soft, like hachiyas, but have distinctly different flavors.
These sub-varieties are particularly difficult to grow, Rieger explains, because many of them are pollination-varying persimmons. Unlike Fuyu or Hachiya, which will be astringent or non-astringent regardless of whether the flowers on the tree have been pollinated, species like tsurunoko and maru have to be pollinated in order to become non-astringent. And there’s no way to know if they’re going to be good until you cut into them and either taste them or look for seeds—a telltale sign that the fruit has been pollinated.
So, if no one really knows what they’re growing, how can fruit lovers looking for the best possible persimmon figure out which ones to buy? “You should always sample the fruit!” says Rieger. And once you find fruit you like, you should stick with your source, as other growers’ trees won’t be exactly the same. Some growers even have a better record with pollination-varying persimmons than others. Rieger has been particularly successful and finds very few un-pollinated fruits in his orchard every year. (Rieger contends that even Fuyus and other pollination non-varying persimmons actually taste better when they’ve been pollinated—a controversial statement, given that the state’s larger growers emphatically prefer to have un-pollinated fruit, which they can market as “seedless” persimmons.)
So what’s Rieger’s secret? Even he doesn’t know. He purchased his tiny orchard almost twenty years ago from a Japanese-American couple, and he thinks the property just has a particularly good mix of trees that pollinate each other well. Rieger even keeps a few Tane-nashi persimmon trees (trees that are generally considered ornamental and produce fruit so bad “even the birds won’t eat them”) because he doesn’t want to upset the orchard’s balance. When you’ve got good persimmons this good, you don’t take any risks.