Most of us are familiar with two kinds of persimmon: the apple-sized, crunchy Fuyu and the bulbous Hachiya, best enjoyed when it’s so ripe, it’s gooey. I'm going to go out on a limb here and argue there's an even BETTER persimmon, available only at farms and farmers' markets.
I'm speaking about the Maru, or chocolate persimmon, so called because when you bite into a ripe one, the flesh inside is brown like chocolate. The Maru is juicy and sweet without being cloying. It's my obsession now.
I blame David Karp, who set me off on the search. He’s the farmers' market writer for The Los Angeles Times and a pomologist -- which is to say, a botanist who specializes in fruit. A few years back an old mentor of Karp’s, the late Art Schroeder of UCLA, pulled out a fragile manuscript yellowed with age and tattered at the edges.
"He showed me an ancient Japanese treatise written by a Japanese marquis in English in like 1907, or something like that," says Karp. "My eyes got wide. I looked at these various different varieties and I said, 'Where can we find these in California?'"
When Japanese farmers settled in California more than 100 years ago, they brought Japanese persimmons with them. Americans caught on almost immediately, but not across the board. They took to the Hachiya, the Fuyu and the Jiro (which many confuse with the Fuyu). The other varieties? Not so much. It's a common story, and it gives nostalgic pomologists a lot to dream and wonder about.
Karp got in his battered old truck nicknamed Bessie and canvassed the state, visiting Japanese family farms from San Diego County to the Sierra foothills. It took Karp a couple of years to get to a particular farm famous for its Maru, and by that time, word had gotten out there was a crazed pomologist combing the back roads.
"Tosh Kuratomi greeted me at the door," Karp recalls. "He said, 'I always knew you’d find your way here some day.'"
Otow Orchard sits on 20 sunny acres east of Sacramento in Granite Bay. Suburbs have sprung up in what used to be farm country, and if you weren't looking for the hand painted signs promising fruit, you might fly right past the farm. But Placer County is the Garden of Eden for California persimmon lovers.
On the day I turned up, I arrived just in time to join Tosh Kuratomi as he led a pack of pre-schoolers from Folsom American River Montessori on an orchard tour. As it happens, chocolate persimmons are his favorite, too. Kuratomi reached into one likely looking tree to grab a round fruit the size of a tangerine.
"You see how the skin is?" he said to the pint-sized toddlers. "You see how it’s starting to get brown? This nice orange fruit is starting to show brown, almost like bruises. That’s the flesh inside. Anyone wants to take a bite?"
Debbie Doss, the gal leading this group, couldn't help herself from interrupting. "Oh that’s -- you guys -- that’s to die for. It is so delicious."
With that endorsement, everybody’s hands shot out for a sample.
Why aren't there Maru piled high in every supermarket in the land? In truth, there are several reasons, starting with the fact many Americans associate the color brown with spoilage.
Kuratomi says "We’ve had calls from customers saying “Boy, you just sent us a box of rotten persimmons. We just threw them out.” He urges them to go digging in the trash to retrieve the fruit.
Perhaps even more damning: the Maru requires pollination to ripen. That doesn’t always happen, and sometimes, only some of the fruit is pollinated.
"If it’s yellow, eat the brown part," Kuratomi warns the tour group. "You only want the brown part, because the yellow part will make your mouth feel funny."
If you've ever eaten a Hachiya persimmon before it was fully ripe, you know what he's talking about. The flesh is what the experts call "astringent." Captain John Smith wrote famously in 1607 of his encounter with an unripe American persimmon: "It will drive a man's mouth awry with much torment."
Even worse: you can't tell whether a Maru is pollinated from the outside. "Now that is the kiss of death commercially," David Karp says. "You can’t tell from the outside whether it’s edible or not."
In the farm store, Kuratomi's wife Chris takes the time to educate customers about all nine varieties of persimmon they sell, starting with how to know when they’re ripe. Presuming your fruit is ripe, Chris sees no need to cook or otherwise fuss with what Mother Nature made perfect. "I just eat them out of hand," she says. "That’s the best way."
Over the years, word has gotten out about Otow Orchard. Public TV stations play a California Gold segment by Huell Howser every fall. There have been magazine profiles, some written by David Karp. Then there's the word of mouth from people like Randy Fong, who drives all the way from South San Francisco every year. That’s two hours each way just for persimmons.
"It’s important to me," he says, carefully holding a box of a dozen persimmons. "I’m a firm believer in either buying local or supporting the smaller people."
Listen to The California Report radio story: Family Cultivates Persimmon History
So where can you procure chocolate persimmons?
- The Otow Orchard farm store is open 9-6 Tuesday through Saturday and 9-5 Sundays. Gordon Poulsen of Willow Creek Ranch buys from Otow and sells at the farmers market in Loomis (weekly at the Blue Goose Fruit Shed).
- Penryn Orchard Specialties, near Auburn, is another Placer County persimmon gem. Jeff Rieger drives like a mad man to the farmers' market in Santa Monica, which is not Bay Area adjacent much as some would like it to be. The good news is he will ship his persimmons.
- Twin Peaks Orchards, in Newcastle (northeast of Granite Bay), grows Hykume, a variety of chocolate persimmon the farm cures and calls Amagaki. They sell at a numbers of Whole Foods in Northern California, most reliably in the Sacramento area and Sonoma County. You'll also find them at the Stonestown Farmers' Market, Petaluma Farmers' Market, and Sebastopol Farmers' Market. They ship!
- Blossom Bluff Orchards in Reedley sells a couple chocolate persimmon varieties at the Ferry Building Farmers' Market in San Francisco on Tuesdays and Saturdays. You'll also find them at Berkeley Farmers' Market, Temesecal Farmers' Market and Albany Farmers' Market. Quantities are limited, though they have lots of Hachiyas and Fuyus.
- K&J Orchards in Winters sells two varieties at the Ferry Building Farmers' Market in San Francisco on Saturdays. They also ship if you call and special order.
But don’t wait too long to hunt for your maru. The season only lasts till through December.
If you’ve got more ripe persimmons than you know what do with, there are recipes like the one Tosh is most fond of -- persimmon date bars. Here's the version his wife Chris makes for him:
Recipe: Persimmon Date Bars with Lemon Glaze
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 t baking soda
1 cup persimmon pulp
2 cups flour
1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1/4 t cloves
1/4 t cloves
1/4 t salt
1 t grated lemon rind
1 cup chopped dates or raisins
1 cup coarsely chopped nuts
- Cream butter and sugar; add eggs.
- Stir soda into persimmon pulp and add to creamed mixture.
- Combine flour, spices and salt and add to creamed mixture.
- Blend in lemon rind, dates and nuts.
- Turn into well-greased 9 inch square baking pan.
- Bake at 350o in oven for approximately 25 to 30 minutes.
- Glaze with powdered sugar thinned with lemon juice, orange juice, or lime. Cream.