No fruit better signals the start of the holiday season than the exotic persimmon, known for centuries to Asian consumers as the fuyu . The North County's increasing Pacific Rim population has fueled the demand for the orange, satiny-skinned fruit, which is fast becoming a familiar item in local supermarkets.
In this country, the best-known variety of persimmon is the hachiya , which looks a little like a large orange acorn thanks to its pronounced conical shape. This particular persimmon, however, must be left to soften before it is consumed, unlike the oku gosho or giro , which can be eaten out-of-hand like an apple.
Although many local consumers have discovered persimmons only in the last few years, Jim Bathgate grew up in a persimmon grove in San Juan Capistrano. "I've been familiar with the fruit all my life," said Bathgate, a former engineer, who has written articles on fuyu, and authored the "Fuyu Primer," a booklet published by the California Fuyu Growers Assn. Last year, Bathgate's orchard of 800 trees in Valley Center yielded approximately 80,000 pounds of persimmons.
"The fruit is definitely becoming more popular," he said, "but the general public still has to be educated about fuyu." Bathgate and his wife, Lee, were founding members of the California Fuyu Growers Assn., which tries to educate consumers to the myriad uses of the persimmon.
Bathgate grows mainly oku gosho, the most popular in North County, and "probably the original strain that came from Japan," he said. Giro, a persimmon that is usually seedless, also grows well in the area.
"One of the problems for fuyu growers is that some of the original rootstocks were mislabeled," said Bathgate. "For example, the California fuyu was named by foreign growers who came to California looking for nonastringent strains of fruit. They noticed when they returned to their native countries that the persimmons didn't taste the same as the original Japanese varieties. They then referred to ours as the California fuyu."
The distinction, he adds, was made barely two years ago, since the techniques to differentiate among the various strains are still being refined. Bathgate is experimenting with an original persimmon tree that came from his family's back yard.
"I'm trying to turn back the clock to try and propagate an original variety," he said. "The giant nonastringent persimmon is attractive in size and sweetness, and a great back-yard fruit tree," said Bathgate, "but it has a limited shelf-life, which makes it difficult to market."
"People who try fuyus for the first time often make the mistake of thinking all varieties are alike," said Sally Sanderson of Rancho Willow Creek in Valley Center. "I learned about fuyu persimmons by taking care of our 8-year-old grove," said Sanderson, who is a board member of the state fuyu association. When fall arrives at Rancho Willow Creek, the persimmons' lush green foliage turns a red tone, much like maple trees. Leaves fall, and the deciduous trees "look just like sticks for about three months," Sanderson said. In season, however, clusters of shiny persimmons weigh down the limbs, many of them held up with stakes. Like some other fruits, the fuyu are ripening early this year because of the drought.
"When my oku goshos are ripe, I often have to chase away coyotes, and crows, not to mention my dogs from eating persimmons," she said with a laugh. "They love to feast on the ripe fruit!"
Lindy Arms became aware of fuyu as a wholesale produce buyer in Los Angeles. "I can remember when fuyus were in short supply," he said.
Arms planted 300 giro trees in Fallbrook eight years ago. He choosea flat, four-sided, seedless variety. "Fuyu are far superior to apples as a snack," he said. "They're easier to digest, very crisp and crunchy when ready, and not overly sweet. It's a fruit kids love, and there's no waste since it has no core."
Keep all persimmons in a cool, dry place, at room temperature. If refrigerated, they must be used immediately for cold temperatures hasten the ripening process. Do not keep fuyu close to other fruit because that will also hasten ripening.
Hachiya are ripe when soft and fully orange, and they will continue to ripen at room temperature for about three weeks after they're picked. Many home growers, unfamiliar with the Hachiya's tendency to sweeten as it softens, often pick the fruit too early. The giro and oku gosho can be eaten out-of-hand.
Persimmons are a good source of Vitamin A, potassium and calcium. Oku gosho and giro add crunch to fruit salads, "just like apples in a Waldorf salad," said Arms, while the hachiya are best for puddings and cakes. Dried fuyu are also growing in popularity.
Sally Sanderson, Willow Creek Ranch, 10123 West Lilac Road, Escondido, CA. 92026. 749-6995. Sells through area farmers markets. Price ranges from about 35 cents to $1.25 per pound, depending on size and availability.
Jim and Lee Bathgate, 28888 Pleasant Knoll, Valley Center, 920892, 749-3359. Sells strictly through packing houses or farmers' market. Prices range from about 50 cents to $1.25 per pound depending on size.
Lindy Arms, 946 River View Drive, Fallbrook, 92028. 723-1620. Sells in quantity only. Price depends on quality. Gift packs available for Christmas.