PERSIMMONS // the local food report

Last January, I gave a talk to the Village Garden Club of Dennis. In the midst of a snowstorm, we talked about landscaping with edible plants. I asked if anyone knew of any unusual food plants growing on the Cape, and at the end of the talk a woman named Susan sought me out. “There is a persimmon tree near my house,” she said.

Persimmons, if you’ve never run into them, are weird fruits. There are different varieties, and one is native to the southeastern United States, but I’ve never seen a tree this far north. I first saw a persimmon trees on my honeymoon in Italy. It was November, the leaves had fallen from the trees, and the fruits poked out from the ends of the bare branches like tiny orange jack-o-lanterns. We'd walked up from our little cottage in the olive grove to the town you see up there, and there were persimmon trees in almost every tidy yard. 

I learned that persimmons are a deep ruddy orange, and about the size of a large apple. The skin has the feel of a tomato, and the flesh inside an unripe one is terrible—astringent and bitter. But a ripe one is a different story altogether: soft and sweet and incredibly juicy.

I told Susan I’d like to find the tree. A week later, I got an email.

Dear Elspeth, she wrote. I needed to check the address of the house in Brewster. It is 1215 Route 6a, a white antique Cape.

I found a phone number for the art gallery next door. The owners said the people who had planted the tree had moved away, and that the current owners didn’t know much about it. They said there had originally been two persimmon trees, but one was killed in a winter storm. They wondered if the other one would make it. I promised to come visit in the spring.

Spring came and went, and summer got busy. Fall arrived, with another note from Susan: I’ve been checking out the persimmon tree as I drive by, she told me. It looks a little stressed, but I’m seeing flashes of orange.

The next Saturday, I drove up Cape. Susan met me at the tree.

She told me she recognized the persimmon from memory when I asked about unusual fruits. She said it reminded her of something in her childhood in New Jersey.

"So I went back to my mom and my aunt, and they said yes indeed my great aunt, great great aunt Neily, Cornelia Lambertson had persimmon trees. They would talk about them being very bitter if you picked them before the first frost, and that’s when they needed to be picked. And they would just stop on their way home from school, and go into the orchard there and pick the persimmons and eat them. They liked 'em."

Not everybody does. When I mentioned to my editor Viki that I was tracking down a persimmon tree, she screwed up her face. But the people who love persimmons are devoted to them. One cookbook author goes so far as to say that if you’ve never sunk a spoon into a soft, oozing persimmon, you are truly missing one of life’s greatest pleasures.

I tried to track down the original homeowners who had planted the Brewster persimmon tree. Susan told me they were from India, and that they'd put in the garden when they started an acupuncture practice and moved into town. Like the gallery owners, Susan said the woman and her husband sold the house a few years ago and moved to Florida, and I found a listing for them in Gainsville. But when I called the number, another woman answered, and said the couple had moved away. She didn’t have a forwarding address, and I haven’t been able to locate them.

I keep wondering wondering why this couple would have planted a persimmon tree so far north. Maybe it reminded her of home, or maybe it was planted for its medicinal uses. The leaves are good for everything from teas to poultices, and the fruit is full of important vitamins and minerals. Or maybe it was simply planted for a love of the flavor, for the experience of sinking into a sumptuous, delicate fruit on a chilly fall day.

I may never know. But for now I’m content with the knowledge that there’s a chance for persimmons here, so far out into the chilly sea.

I don't know anything about cooking with persimmons. But this bresaola-wrapped persimmon with arugula looks wonderful, and persimmon cranberry sauce would be a nice twist on tradition for Thanksgiving!

Also, if you like the idea of trying to plant your own persimmon tree, you can learn more about the different varieties and what they need over here.


Anonymous said...

We had a persimmon tree on our property in NJ. The fruits were quite small- about the size of an apricot. We always waited until after the first frost and for the fruits to look slightly shriveled before eating them. The tree slowly began to deteriorate after many storms and lost some significant branches after a while. We have since moved away and I often wonder if the tree is still producing.

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sumner silverman said...

I just planted two american persimmons three summers ago. It is growing beautifully and is taller than I am. Bright yellow leaves this time of year but no fruit yet. We use to pick and make persimmon pies when I lived in Tennessee. I love the oriental varieties.

Sumner Silverman


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