When late fall arrives and the farmers markets are flooded with fresh persimmons in two major varieties: Fuyu (the flat oblong ones that may be enjoyed hard like an apple or softer if you are patient) and Hachiyas, (the heart-shaped ones that must be fully ripened and therefore meltingly soft and pudding-like to enjoy). I am primed for that most special of special seasonal treats: the hoshigaki. The dried, jammy, soft, leathery and altogether rare treat found in Japanese and other pan-Asian markets around my city. Here is a fruit that has been processed as a kind of labor of love, over a period of weeks. Each peeled fruit, hung on a string in an airy warm place, regularly massaged by hand to ensure that the inner pulp of the fruit broken up and retaining their teardrop shape all during the process. I like to think of the similarities between the care and artisanship involved in producing these fruits and what goes into producing the finest teas. At this time of year, I await the pleasure of exploring the relationships between the two by tasting my tea of choice alone, the fruit alone, and then the two together in one mouth-filling experience.
Although the tradition of drying persimmons most likely originated in Japan in the 8th to 12th centuries, with examples of them in Korea and in China (whose versions, respectively, gotgam and shibing, are a fraction of the price since they are not hand massaged or suspended on string as are the traditional far more labor-intensive hoshigaki), feel free to enjoy them with teas from China or India. Unsweetened black teas suit my palate, balancing the intense though not cloying sweetness of the fruit which is traditionally made with the otherwise astringent-when-unripe Hachiya variety of persimmon. Since the mouth-puckering tannins in these are water soluble, when the fruit is dried with much of its moisture evaporated the tannins are no longer perceived by the tastebuds.
Adding one more layer of excitement to this late-fall pleasure, bites of a well-aged English or domestic cheddar or other hard cheese work well in a back-and-forth tasting experience with warm or even cooled-down tea as the beverage of choice here. Sneak in bites of the sweet hoshigaki which play well against the salty presence of the cheese. Tea here is not only the social lubricant for a great get-together but also unites the fruit and cheese as you nibble on a bit of one and then on the other. A croute of pita or other flatbread–toasted but first lightly brushed with fruity olive oil–makes the tasting an event, adding crunchy texture and heft. How’s this for an intro to Thanksgiving dinner? And you can continue serving tea throughout the dinner. Who says that the beverage with dinner has to be a fruity red wine, champagne, or beer? (Although all are good choices in my book.) What about the teetotalers (those devoted totally to tea?) among us?