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A Cook's Garden

East Meets West in a Fall Fruit

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page H07

Persimmons are a mysterious, surprising fruit, unknown to many, eaten by few. For me their strangeness begins with their name, which sounds Latin-derived, along with words like persuade and perspicacious. Or somehow connected with Persia.

Wrong on both counts. The name is Algonquian in origin, as transcribed by the European visitors who first tasted it. Captain John Smith described it as "red when it is ripe: if it be not ripe it will drawe a man's mouth awrie with much torment: but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an Apricock." Smith had encountered the native persimmon growing in Virginia. When Asian persimmons reached us as the result of Commodore Perry's expedition to Japan in 1852, the first name stuck.

Asian persimmon (Bob Pepping/contra Costa Times)

Both trees are members of the genus Diospyros, which also includes ebony. They yield a fine-grained, very hard wood used to make objects that take a lot of wear, such as the heads of golf clubs.

Culinarily, persimmons have fared less well. Many people remember their first taste as a form of persecution: an unripe sample offered by a teasing grandfather, a wicked older sister or the neighborhood bully. Had they persevered and tried one ripe, they might have grown up prizing them as much as the native tribes prized their Diospyros virginiana or the Japanese their Diospyros kaki.

Both species can be grown in the mid-Atlantic, and both have their virtues. The indigenous plant is small to medium-sized, often suckering at the base, its bark deeply ridged in a checkered pattern. It's more of a hedgerow tree than a lawn tree, good for wildlife. The fruits, walnut-sized, and shaped like little orange tomatoes, sometimes descend like a Perseid meteor shower, in a sort of self-thinning process. The rest decorate the leafless branches in late fall.

The so-called Japanese persimmons (originally from China) make more refined specimens in the landscape, with fruits that are tomato-shaped as well as tomato-sized. They seem luxurious compared with the small, seedy native ones, though the natives have a more distinctive flavor and grow on more cold-tolerant trees. If you grow the Asian ones, look for hardy varieties.

Neither tree is the least persnickety when it comes to care, nor prone to pests or diseases. They should be planted while very young, in reasonably fertile, well-drained soil. The native persimmon is a tall, lean tree that in time will grow to 30 feet or more. Asian varieties are smaller, broader -- about the size of a crab apple -- and as such are easier to place in the confines of the urban, suburban landscape. Prune as needed for tidiness, or to open up the center for better ripening. They will start to bear within a few years. Fruits, especially the Asian types, are picked by snipping them from the branch with pruners. More extensive advice can be found in Lee Reich's excellent book, "Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden," (Timber Press, 2004).

The sexuality of persimmons is particularly baffling. Some trees are male, some are female, some have flowers of both sexes, some change their gender in midlife, no doubt for personal reasons. Some are self-fertile, some need a pollinating tree. Some have no seeds. The most important distinction for the cook is that some taste horrid all the way up until the moment they ripen, at which point they become so soft inside they are like little jellied balloons. Others -- the so-called "non-astringent" types -- sweeten while still firm. I asked Frank Gouin, a persimmon expert who grows them for market in Deale, Md., which ones he considers the most dependable. He suggested Sheng, Giboshi and the long-keeping Patapsco for the astringent type; Gwang Yang and Tan Kan for the non-astringent. Lee Reich adds Saijo and Great Wall in that category and praises Szukis among the native varieties.

When persimmons reach perfect sweetness it is tempting to gorge on them. Avoid this, especially on an empty stomach, and discard the skin and seeds. Although you can dry persimmons, as the Native Americans did with excellent results, the fruits are little improved by cooking. Indeed, cooking can activate their tannins. Slice them in half and eat the flesh with a spoon, or freeze them and eat them like a sorbet. Make fresh dessert sauces and smoothies from their pulp. Fold it into whipped cream to make an exquisite persimmon fool. If they are ripe on a tree in your yard right now, go outside and snip some for a bowl on your Thanksgiving table. Cranberries are great, but unless you have a flooded acid bog you are unlikely to have grown them yourself.

Perhaps it's time to start a tradition.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company