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Falling For Persimmons

Rarely does San Diego disappoint when it comes to weather or produce. Autumn, however, might be the exception.

A New England girl at heart, I expect autumn to be full of crisp days and crisp apples. Fall in San Diego, however, means temperatures in the 80s, dry, dusty winds and a rather uninspiring collection of apples. Just when I was about to write off the entire season in San Diego, I discovered persimmons, which arrive in late October and last through December.

It was a few years ago when I first spotted persimmons at a local farmers market — shiny, pumpkin-colored fruit with exotic names like Hachiya and Fuyu. A farmer handed me a wedge of a Fuyu to try. When I bit into it, its firm flesh snapped with crispness; it tasted a little like an apricot dusted with cinnamon. I was smitten.

Intrigued, I asked for a sample of the Hachiya persimmon. He put both hands up and sputtered, "Oh, no! You can't eat a Hachiya like this." He picked up a deep orange, heart-shaped fruit, gave it a squeeze and said, "See, this is still hard. That means it's unripe." Then, pointing to a handwritten sign on his table that read "Fuyus eaten hard. Hachiyas eaten VERY, VERY soft," he added emphatically, "You cannot eat these until they're very, very soft first."

A few days later, in a typical act of impatience, I bit into my almost-ripe Hachiya. Immediately, all of the moisture was wicked from my mouth. I could barely swallow. It was then that I recalled the farmer's advice, "very, very soft first." This is one fruit where patience really does matter.

Hachiya persimmons have high levels of tannins; when unripe, they taste like a super-green banana. Fuyu persimmons, in contrast, do not have this quirky ripeness issue, so they can be eaten either hard or soft. If you confuse them (or have patience issues), your persimmon-eating experience might be memorable for the wrong reasons.

Persimmons are of the genus Diospyros, which in Greek means "divine food" or "fruit of the gods." Though prized in many parts of the world — they are considered Japan's national fruit — persimmons remain a mystery to many in the United States. This may have to do with their bumpy start in America.

The first persimmons eaten here were grown in Virginia, hence their scientific name Diospyros virginiana. These wild persimmons were smaller and seedier than today's and perplexed many early settlers. In 1612, William Strachey wrote in Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania: "They have a plum which they call Persimmons. ... When they are not fully ripe, they are harsh and choky, and fur a man's mouth like alum, howbeit being taken fully ripe it is a reasonable pleasant fruit, somewhat luscious." Mr. Strachey would have benefited from the farmer's sign.

Fortunately, Native Americans, who were familiar with persimmons, taught the colonists about this unusual fruit. They introduced them to persimmon pudding and persimmon bread, which became popular desserts in early America and remain so today. In fact, our word for "persimmon" comes from the Algonquin putchamin or pesssemin. While most of the world refers to the fruit as kaki, its Japanese name, Americans have stuck with "persimmon."

It wasn't until the mid-19th century, when Cmdr. Matthew C. Perry introduced a sweeter Japanese persimmon, that the fruit became more widely popular in the U.S. These Asian persimmons, varieties of Diospyros kaki, are native to China but are most closely associated with Japan, where breeders created superior tasting fruit.

By the late 19th century, hundreds of persimmon varieties were brought to America and planted primarily in California. Of these, two types are currently grown on a commercial scale and can be found in supermarkets across the country: the astringent Hachiya and the nonastringent Fuyu, which differ in shape, texture and culinary use.

When selecting heart-shaped Hachiya persimmons, look for deep orange, glossy skin. Don't worry if they have some black streaks; those are just sun spots. Place the fruit in your hand. A fully ripe Hachiya will have nearly translucent skin and feel as if it is filled with water. It should be extremely soft to the touch and requires gentle handling. Removing the thin skin reveals coral-colored flesh so thick and lustrous, it looks like marmalade and tastes like it, too — it's pleasingly sweet with hints of mango and apricot.

To eat a Hachiya, remove the calyx (the flower-shaped stem on top) and use a spoon to scoop out the honeyed, custardlike flesh. It's a deliciously messy affair, so have some napkins on hand. Their creamy, sweet flesh makes Hachiyas ideal for baked goods such as muffins, breads and puddings. They also can be pureed and used as a sauce for ice cream or pancakes, or they can be dried and eaten as a snack.

A hard Hachiya may take up to a week to fully ripen — remember, very, very soft. To speed the ripening process, place the fruit in a paper bag with a banana, which will release ethylene, a gas that promotes ripening. Once the fruit reaches its jellylike softness, it can be eaten right away or refrigerated for several days.

When selecting squat, tomato-shaped Fuyu persimmons, look for unblemished fruit that is heavy for its size. The skin color ranges from pale golden-orange to rich reddish-orange. Generally, the darker the color, the sweeter the taste. Once the calyx is removed, a Fuyu can be eaten like an apple, skin and all, or it can be peeled. If left at room temperature, Fuyus will gradually soften. With their mildly sweet, cinnamon-laced flavor, they are best eaten out of hand or tossed in salads and salsas.

Since discovering persimmons, autumn in San Diego has begun to grow on me. Now, if only some of those palm trees would turn red and yellow.

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Susan Russo