'Write me down as one who loved poetry and persimmons'
This perfect epitaph by the Japanese poet Shiki (pinched from Jane Grigson's biblical Fruit Book) is one reason to love persimmons, and below let me give you a few more.
I have never really understood persimmons before this autumn. There is something about a late discovered love that is even more poignant, and as I ponder persimmons on a rainy day in late October I find myself going into the garden to bring in and eat two more, sucking sweet jelly-like flesh from a spoon over the sink. Persimmons lend themselves to poetry.
This is the season I began to understand persimmons. Zio Mario has a tree of Kaki Vaniglia - the juiciest and most jelly-like, and I have been eating 4 a day for a few weeks now. They are totally unlike any other fruit; I think they are a little bit magical.
The Persimmon, or Kaki as it known in Italy, comes in two main varieties, those that are eaten soft and almost collapsing with ripeness (the Hachiya) and those that can be eaten whilst still hard (the Fuyu). The Fuyu are paler and firm, and are good finely sliced on tarts and in salads. They have a sweet, vaguely honeyish flavour and look beautiful in cross section. The Hachiya, however, are where my heart is. When left to ripen they turn from pale green green to pumpkin orange and finally to a deep flame coral the colour of a setting sun. Once sunset coloured they are ready to eat, their neat four-pointed calyx plucked off and a small, sharp spoon driven into their jelly-ish depths. There is no pretty slicing of these persimmons; they are a fruit on the point of collapse. If any fruit could swoon, it would be a persimmon.
Underripe, plucked before its time, the persimmon is high in tannins, and thus can put people off. Eating it will produce pale fur in the mouth. But, as the fruit ripens the astringent quality softens and one is left with a flesh so tender, honey-sweet and floral that is seems almost diaphanous. Persimmons reward patience, but punish the unperceptive; their perfect point of ripeness is fleeting, blink and they split to reveal fizzing and weeping insides. Eating perfectly ripe persimmons is the ultimate sensory experience, holding - not too tightly - their heavy, supply curved orb in a hand, feeling the delicate papery skin almost split if squeezed, prizing off the little fawn hat, and plunging a spoon inside feels like eating some sort of charmed Fairy-fruit boiled egg.
Originally from Japan (hence the origin of the name which the Italians have inherited) they have a hint of the tomato about them; their shape and stalks not dissimilar, their jelly-ish insides reminiscent too. The flesh itself glows as if lit with internal light; a brilliant, tangerine-jelly orange. The texture is like the softest panna cotta, the sort you can suck through your teeth, just-set like the sweetest, vanilla, honey and orange flavoured juice suspended in a fragile jelly bubble all too easily burst.
In Sardinia, where so many trees are ever-greens, the sight of the Kaki tree is a wonderful one, which sings of autumn. Their leaves turn to a million different autumnal hues; russet, crimson and dark orange, and the fruit glow on the branches like Chinese lanterns, staying long after the leaves have fallen.
Apart from appreciating their beauty and savouring them with a spoon, the kaki's luscious flesh also lends itself to numerous dishes. There is a bravely brown and deeply flavoured nutty cake I will post about soon, but there is also this combination, which is truly divine. Textural juxtaposition in dishes is good, it's true, but sometimes two similar textures together can be even better, each exaggerating, accentuating and complimenting the other, as in this combination, where one jelly (a panna cotta) rivals another (the jellied pulp of a persimmon). The flavours are heavenly, and provide a mirror of Grigson's recommended way of enjoying the fruit; ripe and exploded onto a plate, with plenty of fresh cream.
P.S. Mauro tells me Kaki are the fruit of the Gods, so here it is, a pudding fit for Paradise.
For the Panna Cotta (recipe adapted from La Vita e Dolce):
400 ml cream
100ml whole milk
a strip of orange zest
around 2 tsp orange blossom water
3-4g of leaf gelatine (2 leaves)
pulp of ripe Hachiya persimmon
some fennel pollen (optional)
Heat the cream with the milk, orange zest and sugar until just at a scald, stirring to make sure the sugar has melted. Slake the gelatine in cold water until soft, then dissolve it in the warm cream mixture, stirring well to make sure it is all dissolved. Add the orange blossom water to taste.
Strain through a fine sieve and decant into your vessels of choice (glasses, darioles, ramekins). Allow to set for at least 4 hours in the fridge. To remove from the mould hold for a few seconds in a bowl of warm water, then upturn onto a dish and the panna cotta will slip out.
Serve with the pulp of the persimmon and some fennel flowers, if you wish.