Every December for the past 40 years, my parents in Tokyo have received a package of hoshigaki, dried Hachiya persimmons, in the mail from my old Japanese language tutor who lives in Ogaki, Gifu prefecture in the center of Japan. Eight acorn-shaped hoshigakis — perfectly uniform in size, their skin soft and smooth, with an earthy orange hue and dusted in a powdery white sugar — lay in a bed of straw.
As a girl, each time I opened the package, I was astonished by the beautiful presentation and the floral scent of the hoshigakis. My mother would brew some green tea and cut up a couple of hoshigakis into several pieces. We kids were never allowed a whole. The sweet-tasting fruit with a sip from a mildly bitter cup of tea made us feel momentarily like grown-ups. The artisanal hoshigaki, which the Tsuchiyas have been producing for more than 250 years, are called Gozen Shirogaki, or Imperial White Persimmons — named in honor of Emperor Meiji, who loved them. Gozen Shirogakis are highly sought after, commanding more than $10 apiece. I can’t recall being a particularly good student, but my family considers themselves lucky to be on Tsuchiya’s perennial hoshigaki list.
Discovering local hoshigaki in Southern California
I never imagined in my dreams that I could get artisanal hoshigakis locally in Los Angeles, where I have lived for most of my life. But a few years ago, I was at the Santa Monica Farmers Market and happened on the stand of Penryn Orchards, where I came upon boxes of hoshigaki made with Hachiya persimmons. Their earthy orange hue, dusty white surface and aesthetic presentation immediately brought me back to Tsuchiya’s hoshigakis. I bought a box and tasted one. The fruit was sweet and delicately chewy, with a lovely floral scent. I was absolutely delighted by the discovery.
Jeff Rieger, the owner of Penryn Orchards, a mustached man in a baseball cap wearing a sunburnt flannel shirt, described the flavor of hoshigakis as reminiscent of gingerbread. I smiled at his description because it sounded so American to me, but it rang true. It was also at the farmers market that I met his French girlfriend, Laurence Hauben, who explained to me that they made their hoshigakis entirely by hand, following the traditional Japanese method.
The history of Penryn Orchard goes back to 2002, when Jeff, a builder by trade, bought the 4.5-acre orchard in Auburn in Placer Country in the foothills of the Sierras from a Japanese-American couple, George and Micky Oki. Jeff was going to develop the land and sell it but fell in love with the old trees, including the nine varieties of persimmon trees; he resolved to become a farmer. With help from Laurence, Jeff grows 56 varieties of fruit — among them O’Henry peaches; Satsuma mandarins; Kousui Asian pears; Mutsu apples; and Hachiya, Fuyu, Chocolate, Maru and Gosho persimmons, to name a few — on about 300 trees in total and produces 400 pounds of hoshigakis.
The hoshigaki workshop
After being Penryn’s eager hoshigaki customer for several years, I asked Laurence, who gives regular cooking workshops at her house in Santa Barbara, to teach me how to make them.
I got 10 friends from Los Angeles, and we carpooled to Santa Barbara on a Sunday that couldn’t have been more beautiful and fall-like to be outdoors, to make hoshigakis. Unlike the commercially dried fruits that get sliced up and shriveled in dehydrators, hoshigakis are dried whole in open air. The drying involves a laborious, 40-day process. Laurence said that hoshigaki making is great for children because they learn to follow through with a project from beginning to end. I say many adults, including myself, could benefit from this practice.
We washed the persimmons; paired up the fruits that were more or less the same size; pared the tops off, careful not to cut off the stems; peeled the skin and strung the fruit using 21-inch-long twine. Some fruit came stemless, but Laurence had a solution for that. She drilled a non-corrosive nail into them and — voila! — they were good to go.
We hung the persimmons on bamboo poles to dry in a sunny room. Traditionally, hoshigakis are dried outdoors and brought indoors at night, but Laurence recommended drying them indoors in a sunny room to keep them away from dust, dirt and critters. Good circulation is important to prevent the fruit from molding. The white coat you can see on hoshigakis forms from natural sugar crystals that have been exuded from the persimmons by gentle and daily massaging, which also softens the inner pulp and holds their acorn shape. The white sugar crystals of persimmons are used in Chinese medicine for their beneficial cooling properties. Laurence showed us how to massage the persimmons by applying pressure on our hands.
The workshop included a lovely lunch of homemade Thai curry soup; a kale salad garnished with pomegranates, Fuyu persimmons, and walnuts; and a persimmon cake. Also, there were artisanal breads made by a local baker named Lily, who later brought over another batch of breads, fresh out of the oven, for us to take home. There was homemade cider, called Apicius, made by Remi Lauvand, a French chef who concocted the fruit-less cider from his mother’s recipe. He said the recipe was a secret. It was amazingly refreshing and tasted like herbs. Laurence’s hoshigaki workshop offered the best possible combination of Japanese, French and California cultures coming together elegantly in one place.
Back in Los Angeles, my persimmons are hanging in the sunny den in a place my kitten cannot reach. I have detected no mold so far, and the persimmons are beginning to soften with my daily massage. Progress is slow but solid. If I remain patient and thorough, which is my goal, I may just get rewarded with a light coat of white on my hoshigakis.
Photo: Hoshigakis, with their white covering of dried sugar crystals. Credit: Laurence Hauben