It is hard to imagine a tree more beautiful than a persimmon in full fruit, her branches naked save for the bright orange fruit, strung like lanterns for a festival.
While the name is derived from the Algonquin Indian word for the fruit, the American fruit now takes a back seat to the more popular Chinese and Japanese varieties (where they are traditionally known as shizi or kaki respectively). All are members of the diospyros family – a genus also renowned for its wood, with ebony being particularly prized for making golf clubs.
Beyond the regional variances, there are two distinct types of persimmons: astringent (this fruit is often more pointed in shape with a soft, jelly like texture when ripe) and non-astringent (physically more squat and can be crunchy through to soft and jelly when ripe).
While the non-astringent are undoubtedly more familiar in both taste and texture and thus significantly easier to work with, the astringent variety are highly regarded by connoisseurs. They are particularly revered for their unusual jelly-like texture – when ripe you simply cut off the top and scoop the flesh out with a teaspoon.
The astringency is caused by the fruit being high in tannins, a naturally occurring compound perhaps best known for its role in wine making where they are found inside grape skins, seeds and stems and lend that dryness or dustiness. (Tannins are also present in strong tea where it will leave bitterness on your tongue and a slight dryness around your mouth.) They are so noted for this quality, scientist Harold McGee devoted an entire chapter to persimmons and their mouth-puckering tannins.
Despite their difficulties, they are loved around the world: the Portuguese air dry them, as do the Japanese, stringing them up to dry in the sun or the wind; the Chinese preserve them with sugar while the Japanese like to pair them with yuzu for dessert.
My persimmon epiphany occurred over a lunch at the Zin House in Mudgee. We were sitting at a table overlooking the beautiful glowing orbs of persimmons hanging on their naked branches when the fruit was served as part of the cheese plate. There was something magical about that persimmon. It had that taste of pheromones you can get with ripe truffles - a taste that was almost sensual.
Kim Curry, chef and co-owner of The Zin House, tells me that magical variety was the sweet persimmon Fuyu, a fruit they start working with when it hits about 80% colour, using it like an apple. When they are fully ripe, intensely coloured and soft and are more like the old fashioned astringent type in application.
The non-astringent variety can be cut across the middle to reveal its pretty star shaped interior and are a lovely addition to a salad of rocket and nuts, served alongside some goat’s cheese or simply sliced and scattered with mint and a little cream. Kim will also use hers to make a persimmon tea (with ginger and turmeric) using the leaf or fruit and served as a digestive; in the kitchen it may also be roasted with pork or added in to her kimchi.
Select and store:
For the astringent persimmons it’s important to ensure they are completely ripe before eating – a task best left to the tree, but often complicated as the birds also love them. They will feel heavy and almost gooey. With the non-astringent variety you are given slightly more leniency, but the birds are just as ravenous. Kim notes: “We share the tree with a few parrots each year who very delicately come back to the same piece of fruit each day until it is politely finished.”
Astringent persimmons love: citrus, cream, liqueurs, nuts,
Non-astringent persimmons love: cheese, mint, nuts, poultry, pork, salad leaves