Persimmons are one of WNC’s sweetest fall harvests

LOCAL FLAVOR: Bill Whipple and Monica Williams have already harvested the persimmons from the tree on their West Asheville property and frozen the fruit for future uses. The couple grafted multiple varieties of persimmons onto the same rootstock. Photo by Cindy Kunst

As a cash-strapped 20-something, I recall spending afternoons wandering the woods hunting supersweet, delicate orange persimmons, so ripe they fell from the tree. After gathering a basketful, my foraging friend and I spent hours cleaning and separating seeds from pulp to make persimmon preserves. These wild native fruits were plentiful and free for the taking in late October fields and forests.

If you have experienced crisp slices of persimmon on top of a salad or in an açaí bowl, or seen the baseball-sized orange globes in grocery stores, you have likely experienced a different confection altogether. Although delicious, these large, firm fruits are not American persimmons.

“Asian varieties of persimmon don’t have to soften to be edible; they are much larger and not as sweet. They taste different,” explains Craig Mauney, Henderson County Cooperative Extension agent. “Asian persimmons keep longer and are easier to ship than our native species, which hardly ever make it to grocery store shelves.”

American persimmons are smaller and sweeter, but typically have more seeds and perish faster than their Asian cousins. But perhaps one of the bitterest challenges to the popularity of these orange delicacies is the astringent nature of the not-quite-ripe fruit — the unpleasant tannic flavor can turn off even the most devoted persimmon fan.

A perfectly ripe or even slightly overripe wild American persimmon melts in your mouth with a “dark, earthy caramel flavor,” says Bill Whipple, farmer and founder of the Acornucopia Project. “I have a cultivar that I pick almost daily — the ripe ones almost fall off in my hand and are really soft. Then I tug on the little hat, and if the hat comes off easily, it’s ready.” The “hat” he references is the brown caplike part of the stem that stays attached to the fruit when picked.

Cultivated American varieties like the one Whipple describes are bred for certain qualities and tend to have less astringency but still need to be soft for an optimal citrusy, sweet, slightly acidic flavor.

Much lore surrounds the perfect time to harvest and eat American persimmons, including the assertion that they must undergo a frost before the best flavor can be experienced. A neighbor once told me this frost can be simulated by picking ripe fruit and putting it in the freezer before thawing and eating it.

Although in my experience, putting somewhat astringent persimmons in the freezer did seem to reduce tannic flavors, horticulturist and permaculture designer Monica Williams says that’s not necessary for all varieties. “This whole thing of persimmons needing to undergo frost to be good — well, that’s not true,” she says. “We’ve been eating persimmons for weeks now, and it’s the beginning of October.”

Christopher Parker, forager and owner of Asheville Fungi, corroborates this story. “I don’t necessarily have a favorite variety, because I’m collecting wild persimmons,” he says. “But I do have trees that I go back to year after year because they consistently have sweet, not bitter, fruit, while another tree 10 feet away will be bitter.” He thinks it’s possible that frost is helpful, but that notion may really be connected with what time of year persimmons are ripe. “I think that’s where the idea comes from, because they typically are ripe around the time of the first frost.”

Wild persimmons often have lots of seeds, while some cultivated American varieties are virtually seedless. When asked the best way to process a persimmon to remove the seeds, Williams says, “In my mouth with my tongue.”

Mauney has a different approach. “We call it pulping out. You can use a machine — there’s machines that do that,” he says. “Most people locally or small growers use a colander to separate the seeds and the skins from the pulp. Food mills work, too.” Once persimmons are processed, the pulp resembles orange-colored apple butter.

Many historical references talk about baking persimmons into a pudding, a moist cake with the consistency of a really good brownie. Squares of persimmon pudding are sold at the Colfax Persimmon Festival, held each fall just outside Winston-Salem. “There’s also persimmon ice cream, cookies and bread,” says event host Gene Stafford. “We show people how to process the pulp, and we sell that, too.”

Stafford spends weeks before the festival harvesting wild persimmons on his farm and the surrounding woods, freezing them as he goes. “We give out samples of frozen persimmons,” he says. “They are like candy.”

Mauney goes to the festival each year and often buys 50 or 60 pounds of persimmons just to have in the freezer. He then pulls out what he needs to make ice cream, cookies and puddings throughout the year.

Some people feel that cooking persimmons causes them to lose their delicate flavor. Whipple prefers them raw, saying roasted chestnuts and persimmons are a good pairing. “They come in at the same time of the year; of course, that’s always nice,” he says. After thinking for a minute, he adds, “You could do a ‘Tuscalachian’ dessert plate with persimmon, roasted chestnuts, some goat cheese and maybe a sprig of rosemary to make it really pretty, maybe a fig.” Whipple is making it up as he goes along, but his catchy-sounding Tuscalachian dish would probably do well on menus at Asheville’s upscale eateries.

Diospyros, the botanical name for persimmon, means fruit of the gods. And Williams says, “It makes so much sense. It really is this amazing fruit if you eat them at the right time.”

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About Cathy Cleary
Cathy Cleary works with gardens and food. Her cookbooks include "The West End Bakery Cafe Cookbook" and upcoming "The Southern Harvest Cookbook." Find her blog at thecookandgarden.com She is the co-founder of non-profit FEAST Asheville, providing edible education to kids. Follow me @cathyclearycook

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