10 May 2009

The fruit for people who don't eat fruit

To many, a piece of fruit is as welcome as a piece of good advice. And it's true that many fruits are as unpalatable and just plain bad, as Philip Dowling recently complained in the whinge columns of the Fairfax newspapers, Australia:
A floury apple a day keeps the children away

I KNOW my children are overweight and that I am a terrible parent because I do not encourage them to eat enough fresh, healthy fruit . . . I have tried buying apples that are labelled crisp and fresh but the children tell me next evening that they had to throw them away because they were so floury . . .I have tried buying fruit that is in season. Often I find that half are crisp and fresh and the other half are floury . . . Nectarines, peaches and even plums can be floury, too. Even watermelons . . .We have charities telling us that Australia is throwing away more than 3 million tonnes of food a year. I'm surprised this figure is so low. My children are obviously contributing more than their fair share to it because they have an obsessive father who keeps buying fruit in the forlorn hope that most of it will not be floury from shops highlighting the word "fresh" in their advertising.
I have written before about the "fresh" fruit problem in Australia, in Fresher than that from the "fresh food people" But since that had to do with the superiority of wasps to supermarkets, and Mr Dowling can never aspire to being a wasp mum, I suggest he become the next best thing: a planter of a persimmon tree.

Persimmons are not only for people who hate fruit, but for people who love fruit. They are not only for people who don't garden, but for gardeners who love to look out their window and see a tree that is a marvel of beauty, economy, and stoicism. It thrives without care. It gives without being given unto. Its fruit isn't Revlon fruit, all cosmetic. It is a fruit that is so good that X, who HATES fruit, looks forward to a bowl of unadorned sliced persimmons after dinner, every night in the season, which has just ended.

This picture is of the last one of two persimmons, both of which I kept just a little longer than I would have if there were still a feast of them left. The other one, even more bletted (kept till soft) was squished into a bowl of oatmeal made with creamy milk, pinches of nutmeg, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, a little glob of butter, and some honey (or dark brown sugar, if you like). What a comfort meal!

There are many excellent recipes for persimmons, but when persimmons are cooked they taste so much like pumpkin that unless you've got a glut of them, in my opinion they're better enjoyed fresh. Having said that, they do enhance if given the chance: cakes, rice dishes, seafood, fruit salad, cold platters of anything including meat, cheese, and sharp salty olives—and although I'll hate myself for the sacrilege, I have to admit that a squizz of lemon or even better, lime, doesn't hurt fresh persimmons one bit. It's delicious, as is a sprinkle of cracked pepper.

Better than cooking if you have more persimmons than you can eat fresh, is drying persimmon slices. There are special varieties, such as Tanenashi, that have been developed for drying, but all persimmons dry well. The best dried fruit I ever ate was sliced dried persimmon from a farm in California, but the Chinese have dried whole persimmons for thousands of years, and dried persimmons are popular throughout Asia as a snack, a cough treatment, and an ingredient in other foods, such as a Korean drink made from dried persimmon. Chinese dried persimmons usually have coats of sugar and other additives on them, so if you make your own, you can dry yours naked. I can't imagine any child not liking dried persimmons, as they have great chewy texture in addition to concentrated sweetness. But I still think the best way to eat a persimmon is fresh sliced so you can see the inside (with its beautiful star) and outside (with its skin) at the same time—eaten all by itself, as it is so extraordinarily fine.

The perfect children's fruit
Persimmon is so easy to like, it's a perfect children's fruit. It's so much fun to decide when to eat, that choosing which to eat when makes a perfect children's game.

Persimmons are sweet without being bland. They are never floury. Ripe persimmons never have the complexity of a good apple (the kind children who "don't like fruit" just hate). But while persimmons have no acid bite, they are still complex enough to be delicious to people like me—acid addicts, so they are also the perfect family fruit. Astringency is another factor that puts people off some fruit. Some varieties of persimmons are astringent until ripe (just like bananas). These must be eaten when they are quite soft. The skin of my astringent-variety persimmon then turns translucent and the persimmon feels like a filled water balloon.

Different varieties have different shapes—round, squat tomato, pointed acorn—all beautiful. But the subtle variations of colours—skin and insides—are indescribably beautiful between one persimmon and another, and even in one persimmon. They make the paintings of Bonnard look like black-and-whites. Persimmon colours—fruit (and the extraordinary fruit-imitating-leaves!)—are all the reds and oranges and flames in the kind of dream that gives you a face asleep that awes a watcher—for whatever it is that is happening to you in that mysterious dream, it would be a crime to tear you from it. The skins of these persimmons are very thin, their taste adding to the flavour of the soft flesh inside, much like the flesh and skin of a perfect pear (something very hard to find, and only lasting about ten minutes).

There are also varieties of persimmons that don't have to ripen past the astringency phase, because they are never astringent. My non-astringent variety can be eaten when crunchy, like apples. Even X, the fruit hater, likes these too. They ripen to the same soft lusciousness as the "astringent" variety, but they have rather tough skin. I prefer the astringent variety, not only for the taste of the flesh and skin, but for the beauty of the translucent colours and the feel of the fruit in the hand. I'm surprised it hasn't been banned. But both are delicious, and the picture is of the non-astringent.

My non-astringent tree is a very heavy bearer, even through these years of drought. Neither gets any water other than what the sky tosses down. Both trees are so small, the two of them could fit in many city gardens. My astringent variety ripens first, and only after its fruit is consumed does the non-astringent tree make its fruit ready to pick. If only restaurant staff had that kind of sensitivity! We must pick both trees before the fruit is ripe or there would be none left for us once the crows, king parrots, rainbow lorikeets, and rosellas choose their fruit during the day and the fruit bats, wallabies and roos pick at night. Instead we share fruit every year, leaving some on the trees so that everyone can feast. The best way to ripen a persimmon is to sit it on its gorgeous calyx on a sunny windowsill.

The trees themselves demand nothing, and give out beauty as if it grows on trees. Thinking merely selfishly, plant a persimmon tree, not for what it can do for your kids, but for what it can do for you. A persimmon tree is inspiring. My two inspired me so much that they appear in my story "Valley of the Sugars of Salt"— and though their extraordinary qualities don't extend to reading, I'm sure they would not cease to give generously, even if the story is not at all to their tastes.


Giles Watson said...

Just looking at your pictures, let alone reading the text, has given me a sudden and desperate craving for persimmons. They are hard to get over here (and are always called Sharon fruit), but I remember eating them, delectably over-ripe, with a teaspoon, as a child.

One of my favourite photographs used to be a picture of a little silvereye partaking of a persimmon. Now there, I thought, was a bird with taste... And yes, I do like apples (russets especially), and apricots, and definitely medlars, but most other fruits I can take or leave. Berries are another matter, especially if one has a fine harvest of prickles on one's fingers as evidence that one deserves the rewards.

anna tambour said...

You make me want those persimmons now, too, though the season has ended. Next season I've got to see if I can spoon the inside out as you describe. Then that flame-coloured skin will have to be filled with something else . . . yogurt with grated lemon peel and pistachios, and pomegranate seeds? Greek rice pudding?

That must have been a beautiful picture, except to the orchardists. Those silvereyes are the crows of orchards, though they are beautiful and dainty.
Speaking of birds with sweet 'teeth', the drought is hitting hard here now, and two normally nectar-mining honeyeaters, both little wattlebirds, have taken to cleaning our eaves of the black spiders that hang there numerous as stars. All day the birds flit up, catch, gulp on the balcony rail or on the wing, and then try to hover as they catch again.

But you mention bramble berries. Yum! Out here they're classified as pests, so children don't have the joys of picking them.

Do you like gooseberries?
Do you eat rowan berries? Are there still rowan hedges where you live?

anna tambour said...

and as for those apples you like, "russets especially", and especially about the medlars you "definitely" like, this is a companionable feast to read your likes. I wonder how many of us there are at this table? And where do you find these wonders? When I was last in Europe, about the only apples I saw in the normal markets were green-skinned great-great-great-grannies, although I did find a farmers' market with medlars from Turkey. Do you like another love of mine, chewily scrumptious carob pods? I grew up knowing it as "bokser", but it's also called St. John's bread). Fresh from the trees, they are especially luscious. And their seeds are little jet jewels--the eyes of inscrutibility.