Rare & Delightful Hoshigaki Made in California


Otow Orchard
Tosh Kuratomi
Granite Bay, CA
*Ship long distance

Penryn Orchard Specialties
Jeffrey Rieger
Penryn, CA
*Ship long distance

One of the most amazing foods I've ever witnessed as it was produced is the highly sought out and rare Hoshigaki, made in California's Sierra Nevada foothills by farmers rekindling the lost art. It's nothing less than a labor of love, and just watching it being made helps to explain why the fruit costs more than other types sold at exclusive farmers markets in Santa Monica and elsewhere.

Persimmons are an odd fruit often ignored in the culinary world. But once processed, the dried, sugar-concentrated version of a persimmon can become as rare as gold. Several farms in Placer County grow persimmons and make the dried snack or dessert that is given as gifts.

Unlike other dried fruits that tend to be brittle and leathery, hoshigaki's succulence and concentrated persimmon flavor is heavenly smooth and soft. The hoshi gaki method is traditional to Japan, and came to America with Japanese American farmers.

Penryn Orchard Specialties creates an amazing Tsurunoko or chocolate persimmon grown and sold, though we've not seen it on their recent list...just ask. It is named for its properties that include release of small amounts of alcohol from the seeds in a chemical reaction causing the tannins in the flesh to turn brown, creating a rich flavor and color reminiscent of the characteristics of chocolate.

If not produced with extreme care can be tangy and tart, and can ruin sales of this specialty crop, but done right, it is really sweet when previously pollinated so that seeds are produced.

To be eaten fresh, the Hachiya persimmon must be completely soft, otherwise it is unbearably astringent. For drying, however, the fruits are perfect when they are still firm like apples, which generally happens from the end of September to the middle of October. The riper they are, the more delicately they must be handled.

Making hoshigaki requires dexterity, patience and ample amounts of monitoring. The process involves peeling the persimmon, and then hanging the fruit, several on a string or over a pole. After hanging the fruit for 3 to 7 days, the persimmon forms a skin that needs to be massaged in order to break up the hard inner pulp. The massage process goes on every 3 to 5 days for three to five weeks! By the end of this lengthy process, the sugars eventually come to the surface of the fruits, leaving a white bloom. The hoshi gaki are fully done when the pulp sets and you can no longer roll it.

Hoshigaki can be found at farmers markets from November through the Holiday season in California. The product remains scarce and hard to find beyond the area of immediate production, but one Placer County farmer, Jeff Rieger, is scheduled to begin selling hoshigaki at the Santa Monica Farmers Market this fall.

Joanne Neft, the Placer County Agricultural Marketing Director, (slowfoodusa.org) helps promote the locally grown and slow food movement in Placer County.

About the photo above: It was the mandarins that hooked Jeff Rieger, owner of Penryn Orchards. He lived near Lake Tahoe, first skiing, then painting houses, then building them on speculation. When Rieger and his girlfriend at the time bought a 4.3-acre property in Penryn, in the Sierra foothills northeast of Sacramento, in November 2002, he intended to fix up the house and flip it for a profit. But the owner had left the crop of satsuma mandarins on the trees, and Rieger started picking them and bringing them to a local store. Soon he split with the girlfriend and fell in love with the farm, which he named Penryn Orchard Specialties.

The orchard was indeed a beauty but in need of a lot of loving care. Established by George Oki, a retired Caltrans worker, it was part of a long local tradition, now fading, of fruit farming by Japanese American immigrants and their children. Oki planted the fruits traditionally beloved in Japan, such as Asian pears, persimmons, satsumas and loquats, as well as pears, peaches and apples. When he sold the property to Rieger he gave him a map of the orchard and told him 'Good luck.'

"I didn't know anything about farming at all," says Rieger, 52, on a recent visit, pointing to the signs he hung on each tree to help him identify them. "I needed a map, I couldn't tell a fig tree from a mandarin tree."

So why become a farmer? "Everybody around here said you can't make money farming," he says. "I love a challenge." So he sold his boats and antique books, maxed out his credit cards and devoted himself to renovating the orchard.

Fruit lovers have long prized "mountain-grown" pears, plums and peaches from the Sierra Nevada foothills, where the warm summer days and cool nights help crops mature slowly and develop rich, balanced flavor. Since World War II, competition from San Joaquin Valley orchards and encroaching development have marginalized the area's commercial fruit industry, but a small number of artisanal farmers have spurred a revival based on "agri-tourism" and high-quality specialty produce.

Many of the trees Oki planted were heirloom or home garden varieties such as Howard Miracle and Elephant Heart plums, Indian Blood peaches and "chocolate" persimmons. These brown-fleshed persimmons have long been appreciated by connoisseurs but were virtually unknown and unavailable commercially until the last few years.

A neighbor, Tosh Kuratomi, taught him some of the secrets of the traditional Japanese art of making hoshigaki, or dried Hachiya persimmons, another variety growing on the farm. It's a difficult, laborious process, requiring the peeling and frequent massage of thousands of fruits, but Rieger launched himself into making hoshigaki and eagerly promoted them as a gourmet product.

He might not have succeeded in making a living at farming had he not met his current girlfriend, Laurence Hauben, 51, in early 2004 at the Small Farm Conference in Sacramento. Born in France in an industrial area near the Belgian border, she often dreamed as a young girl of living in a house with an orchard.

In 1982 she placed an ad in this newspaper ("French girl, 23, looking for au pair job") and received an offer; the next year she settled in Santa Barbara. She had a typically French passion for food and cooking, and eventually became a freelance food writer, restaurant manager and cooking teacher. From 2003 to 2005 she was executive director of the Santa Barbara Farmers Market Assn., and since 2001 she has been head of the Santa Barbara chapter of Slow Food.

For the first two years after buying his orchard, Rieger struggled to make ends meet by selling at local farmers markets, but Hauben introduced him to Laura Avery, the manager of the Santa Monica farmers market, who was intrigued by his chocolate persimmons and offered him a coveted spot.

Each week from August to December he drives south to Hauben's home in Santa Barbara on Tuesday; the next morning they go Santa Monica, where they have flourished selling to restaurants such as Lucques, Lou and Campanile; to wholesalers; and of course to the public.

Hauben, who goes up to Penryn to work on the farm for a week or so every month, convinced Rieger to plant the varieties she missed from France: European pears such as Bosc, Comice and Forelle; greengage and mirabelle plums; and Chasselas Doré and Muscat Hamburg grapes.

Rieger and Hauben do everything, without hired help. The orchard is like his child; his greatest fear is bringing a bad piece of fruit to market, and a customer's careless criticism can cause him agony. He has devoted himself to mastering the horticultural arts -- pruning, irrigation, fertilization, harvest -- with ferocious intensity.

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