The first week of December has passed, and while they’re fighting snowstorms in Hokkaido, we are still harvesting tomatoes from our garden! The fall this year has been unusually warm but the winter fruits are ripening right on schedule. In America winter fruit meant a thinning of options in the produce section and a return to apples, oranges, and bananas—the apples from Washington state, if you’re lucky, the rest from further afield.
Here, winter fruit is mikan, or small oranges in various sizes and varieties, and persimmons. Since mikan are a cash crop there is always an abundance, so as farmers harvest they always pass on extras to neighbors and friends. Those neighbors and friends already got a bunch of mikan from other farmers, so they pass them along to their own neighbors and friends, who themselves are already overflowing. It’s a big mikanfest, and by February everyone’s sick of them. But it’s great to have free fresh fruit wherever you go.
Persimmons are slightly rarer since they’re not a cash crop, but there are many producing trees around so they’re quite easy to get, especially if you don’t mind asking. They come in two varieties, fuyu-gaki (winter persimmons), and shibu-gaki (bitter persimmons); winter is the most popular variety because you can just peel and eat. They start coming in November and are served crunchy, and by December you can find nice soft ones you can eat with a spoon.
Bitter persimmons are popular as dried fruit, called hoshi-gaki. Their astringency disappears and they become very sweet as they dry. But harvesting and drying them is becoming less common these days, and many people just buy them in packages for a new year’s treat.
There is a tree up the hill from us on a piece of land for sale that had lots of nice bitter persimmons that no one was picking. We asked our hancho, or neighborhood leader (this is apparently where the word ‘honcho’ came from), who called the real estate company for us and got permission to pick them. It wasn’t a very large tree but we got 32 kilograms from it!
The big ones we peeled and strung up to dry. The ones you can see in the foreground have been drying for about a week. The dark color is natural–any drying fruit will oxidize and change color. If dried fruit still has a nice fresh color to it, that’s a giveaway that there is sulfur or some other preservative in there. The fresh ones in back have been hanging for just one night.
You should massage them every day to loosen the fibers and release the sugars; if the conditions are right some sugar will form a white coating on the outside, and those are the most prized. I’m thinking this year is too warm for that though.
We removed the stems from the smaller persimmons and piled into a pickling vat. The microorganisms present on their skin should turn them into vinegar in a few months.
Oddly enough, most people I tell about this experiment aren’t even aware that you can do this, even though it was a traditional processed food. We’ll see what happens.