When farmers from Japan settled in California more than 100 years ago, they brought Japanese persimmons, with their bright, shiny skins and sweet interiors.
Some Americans almost immediately caught onto the charm of these orange beauties, and with the help of a few prominent backers, passion for the Japanese varieties spread across the country, according to botanist Julia Morton.
"Seeds first reached the United States in 1856 when they were sent from Japan by Commodore Perry. Grafted trees were imported in 1870 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and distributed to California and the Southern states," she wrote back in the 1980s.
Private individuals imported the trees as well, either to stock their family farms or to stock their backyards.
To this day, people living in older homes across California are flummoxed in the fall by a sudden crop of persimmons somebody else planted years ago. It's not unusual for people to show up at the office with a shopping bag full of persimmons that must be eaten sooner, rather than later.
Even where persimmons are common, most consumers are familiar with two kinds: the apple-sized, crunchy Fuyu and the bulbous Hachiya, best enjoyed when it's so ripe, it's gooey. But there are other, more esoteric varieties worth hunting for.
One of them is the maru, or chocolate persimmon — so called because when you bite into a ripe one, the flesh inside is brown, like chocolate. The maru is juicy — and sweet without being cloying. It's a favorite of David Karp's.
Karp is the farmers market writer for The Los Angeles Times and a pomologist — a botanist who specializes in fruit. A few years back, Karp visited an old mentor of his, the late pomologist Art Schroeder of UCLA, in his home library. Karp wanted to know more about the history of persimmons in California for an article he was writing for the Times. Schroeder pulled out a fragile manuscript, yellowed with age and tattered at the edges.
"He showed me an ancient Japanese treatise written by a Japanese marquis in English in like 1907, or something like that," says Karp. Years before, this nobleman crossed the Pacific to survey persimmons in California. He laid down the details of his findings in a pamphlet that also described how to grow all sorts of varieties — far more than the ones Karp was used to seeing in the markets. "My eyes got wide. I looked at these various different varieties and I said, 'Where can we find these in California?' "
Karp got in his battered old truck nicknamed Bessie and canvassed the state, visiting Japanese family farms from San Diego County to the Sierra foothills. It took Karp a couple of years to get to a particular farm famous for its maru, and by that time, word had gotten out that there was a crazed pomologist combing the back roads.
"Tosh Kuratomi greeted me at the door," Karp recalls, "and he said, 'I always knew you'd find your way here someday.' "
Otow Orchard sits on 20 sunny acres east of Sacramento, in Granite Bay. A few decades after a Japanese family purchased the land in 1911, the suburbs around it began to spring up. If you weren't looking for the hand-drawn signs promising fruit, you might fly right past them.
On the day I turned up, I arrived just in time to join Kuratomi as he led a pack of local preschoolers on an orchard tour. As it happens, chocolate persimmons are his favorite. Kuratomi reaches into one likely looking tree to grab a round fruit the size of a tangerine and with skin almost as thin as that of a tomato.
"You see how the skin is?" he says to the pint-sized toddlers. "You see how it's starting to get brown? This nice orange fruit is starting to show brown, almost like bruises. That's the flesh inside. Anyone wants to take a bite?"
Debbie Doss, the woman leading the preschool group, breaks in. "Oh that's — you guys — that's to die for. It is so delicious."
With that endorsement, everybody's hands are out for a sample. Doss is right. The chocolate persimmon is delicious — juicy and sweet but not too much. There's a slight hint of spice, like nutmeg. I was set to inhale the whole thing, but a 2-year-old wanted my maru, so I relented and gave it to him.
So why aren't there maru piled high in every supermarket in the land? In truth, there are several reasons, starting with the fact that many Americans associate the color brown with spoilage.
"We've had calls from customers saying, 'Boy, you just sent us a box of rotten persimmons. We just threw them out,' " Kuratomi says. He urges them to go digging in the trash to retrieve the fruit.
Perhaps even more damning is that the maru require pollination, ideally from bees, to ripen. That doesn't always happen, and sometimes only some of the fruit is pollinated.
"If it's yellow, eat the brown part," Kuratomi warns the tour group. "You only want the brown part, because the yellow part will make your mouth feel funny."
You know what he's talking about if you've ever jumped the gun and eaten a Hachiya persimmon before it was fully ripe. The astringent flesh is an unforgettable experience. Capt. John Smith wrote famously in 1607 of his encounter with an American persimmon: "If it is not ripe, it will drive a man's mouth awrie with much torment."
You can't tell whether a maru has been pollinated from the outside. "Now that is the kiss of death commercially," Karp says.
In a world that favors big farms growing just a few products, Otow Orchard is a throwback to earlier times and traditions, but it's kept alive by modern financial strategies. Kuratomi is a retired schoolteacher, and his retirement allows him to indulge in the role of gentleman farmer. The plan is for his children to do the same, and their children after.
"We hang in there," Kuratomi says. "We figure the trees'll hang in there. I guess a lot of it is tradition. When your family does something and has a business, you kind of hate to see it go away."
Chocolate persimmons are not available in stores near you. If you know of a Japanese family farm nearby, that's your best bet. A number of well-stocked farmers markets in California carry them. Otherwise, look for mail order options. But order soon. The season only lasts through December.
For more on the chocolate persimmon, check out the KQED radio piece.