December has swept in now, and at first I thought we were well and truly settling into winter. Last week I played a game of ‘let’s see how long I can go without turning on the heater.’ I made it to 2.5 days bundled in 3 sweaters, a coat, two scarves and fluffy earmuffs before caving and filling the heater with kerosene – I decided my bones were more important than electricity bills, because damn it, I was feeling the weather in my left knee. But we’re halfway through the month and it is now bizarrely warm. It was, like, 13C earlier today. The kitchen window is open for fresh air – unthinkable a week ago.
Since it’s so warm, I can pretend it’s still autumn. Which means I can totally bore you to death with another story about persimmons.
Still here? Good.
Come autumn when the trees burst into fruit hanging heavy from branches, you begin seeing dried persimmons everywhere. In the countryside strings of them hang from the eaves of every other house, alongside the onions and daikon radishes being dried and stored for winter. Maybe I’m just sentimental but my heart flutters a little when I see persimmons drying in front of houses, as though they’re necklaces for their facades.
Walking along the Nakasendo Way, through the sparsely-populated heartlands of Gifu and Nagano, I sighed over every persimmon tree that had been left to lie fallow, and squealed over all the strings of orange globes that people had lovingly strung together, some traditional, some not. The usual twine through the stems, or dangling in pairs over clothes racks, but one house also had them skewered in pairs through two thick woven hemp ropes, like a folkish wreath of some kind.
When G visited Kyoto, I took him to the shrine near us to feed the turtles in the pond. (“These ones are so sluggish, not like the ones in Hong Kong…”) On the way back we passed an empty plot of land that seemed to belong to nobody, with two conker trees and two astringent persimmon trees growing wild. The grass was strewn with conkers, and an occasional fallen persimmon.
The lower branches had already been stripped of fruit, but there laying near us – rather conveniently – were bundles of long bamboo poles. I grabbed one and shimmied up the tree, and in the sunset glow, started hitting the higher branches in the hopes that the fruits would loosen and fall. (There is some truly hilarious footage of me whapping branches ineffectually, which you will never see. Mwahaha!) Eventually I hooked the pole into the crevices between branches, using it as leverage, shaking the branches until a good number of them fell into G’s jacket.
A wizened baachan on her way home stopped to watch us, called out to us in a thick, half-intelligible Kansai dialect.
“Why isn’t the boy up there, eh?”
“Oh, well, I wanted to climb up here.”
“You be careful then.”
“I’l be careful. Thought it’d be a shame if all these fruits went to waste, you know…”
“Yes, it’d be a waste, they’re natural too, eh… nothing better than fruit naturally growin’ like that.”
“We’re going to make hoshigaki with them.”
“Ah, yes, hoshigaki. That’s good.”
I answered her in the way you do when you’re straddling a tree trunk and trying not to lose your balance, while leaning over as far as you can without falling to reach branches further away from you. Persimmon trees are notorious for having breakable branches, and while these didn’t feel like they were going to give way under me, I certainly wouldn’t try it without someone else underneath to cushion your fall. She eventually left us, with a customary ‘ganbatte ne.’
The unripe ones would be for drying – they were totally inedible at this stage, being horribly astringent – but some of the fruit that had fallen from the branches were already perilously ripe. Before carrying our loot home we stood there slurping overripe persimmon off our hands. The skies were fast purpling to dark, and I remember pure glee, the sweet creamy flesh inadvertently putting a smile on our faces.
Drying persimmons requires a good amount of preparation before you even get started on business of drying. In my case, climbing up the tree. A cycle out to the home centre for twine, then to the gardening centre for netting to keep the birds away. Later that week my housemate and I peeled them after the work day had finished. Then I tied them together with twine by the stems and calyxes – the ones that had stems left, anyway. Dipped them in boiling water to cook the outsides a little. Re-adjusted the ones that wouldn’t stay on with toothpicks. And finally, finally, hung them under the eaves of our house – no small feat for a short person, you know – with netting to keep the birds out.
I forgot about them for a few days afterwards. It rained warm and wet, some hours of sunshine with showers between, and I thought to check in on the dried persimmons. To my sheer horror, when I shook the net, a cloud of small black fruit flies stirred into action; a few of the fruits also had a greenish cast to them, a few with soft, slightly bruised patches. I vacillated, wondering whether to take them down, or leave them there and hope they’d dry out. But Google tells me that a single fruit fly can lay up to 400 eggs in its 7-day life cycle. 400. Eggs. These little fuckers can breed. So it was with a heavy heart that I flung my persimmons out into the compost heap – which, incidentally, must be the wildest dang compost heap in all of Kyoto. In 10 years time there will be mikan, avocado, lemon, and yes, persimmon trees growing from this corner where the compost heap is, I just know it.
I’d planned to have my first taste of dried persimmon be homemade, just because I thought it would taste all the better for it. After this little fiasco I thought I would end this season without tasting one. They’re labour-intensive little creatures, and good ones can be quite expensive. Then it just so happened that a client bought a packet of them from a roadside stall somewhere in the back streets of Arashiyama, and shared them with us.
As a rule I am not the hugest fan of dried fruit. They are still not my favourite thing to put in my mouth, but I will say now, for the record: I do like dried persimmons. It had a pleasing soft leather chew. It is dark and wine-sweet, demanding, as the Japanese do, a cup of tea to accompany it. It is the kind of snack you contemplate rather than blaze through. Even better was the kaki no kinton from Kawakami-ya which the same client bought to share – a perfect, sugar-frosted dried persimmon concealing a chestnut inside, the whole confection beautifully wrapped in a mottled burnt orange leaf.
When I think about the effort that went into this year’s batch, I don’t know for sure if I want to try making them again. I suspect, though, that I will find myself up a tree again next year. The pleasure of making dried persimmons, I think, lies in watching them slowly shrivel small and brown in the wind and sun, and then massaging them gently to let the fructose bloom on the outside – and most of all, having all this happen right outside your window. Then, after a month or two, you get to lay them out like jewels in a box, to be eaten slowly over months as occasional treats.
Next year I will arm myself with a spray bottle of 35% shochu, and pick only the hardest, unripest fruits. I will leave the stems on to make life a little easier. And I will keep my fingers crossed.