There is nothing romantic about the summer heat in a densely populated inland city like Turin. Respite in the form of a breeze (and air-conditioning, as Italians generally don’t like colpi d’aria or ‘hits of air’!) is rare and all that concrete and cobblestone are notorious heat retainers, even at night. Stovetop cooking and oven baking inevitably take a backseat in the kitchen as ice creams, salads and other chilled and/or raw dishes become daily menu fixtures. This year’s summer was particularly uncomfortable and I could not have been more grateful when autumn finally arrived. ‘It’s my favourite season’, I found myself saying constantly, excited to be able to apply heat to food again. Risottos, roasts and soups. Bread, pizza and biscuits. I cooked and baked them all. I just could not stop singing the praises of the season’s colours, foliage and culinary delights.
Three weeks ago, my joyful tune came to an end. I came down with a fever and sinusitis. Chills, a phlegmy nose and throbbing head pains left me unable to cook with my usual enthusiasm, scout my local market for fresh produce and worst of all, savour anything that entered my mouth.
Diminished energy levels and an incapacitated palate were not enough to stop my in-laws from arriving with their usual cratefuls of fruit and vegetables. Out of politeness, I made the effort to consume the food they insisted on bringing over. Of these, one seasonal fruit succeeded in reawakening my dormant tastebuds – persimmons from the Monferrato hills.
According to Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food, the persimmon’s wild ancestor is native to China. There, cultivation dates to at least 2000 years ago and the fruit’s popularity quickly spread to neighbouring Korea and Japan. Italy, like the rest of Europe, had to wait until the 1500s to discover this species of fruit, when the peninsula’s first persimmon tree was planted in Florence’s Boboli Gardens. In the 17th century, another tree was planted in the Botanical Gardens of Misilmeri (a Sicilian town near Palermo) by the Franciscan friar and botanist Francesco Cupani da Mirto for scientific study and ornamental purposes. If you’ve ever seen persimmon trees in winter, you’ll understand why they were appreciated for their aesthetic qualities. Stripped of their leaves by the cold, these vivid orange baubles remain, hanging precariously on to stark, bare branches. Eventually, people here did catch on that those baubles tasted wonderful too and, in the early twentieth century, persimmons began to be grown in orchards in the regions of Campania, Sicily, and Emilia-Romagna. To this day, these regions remain Italy’s main producers of the fruit.
Cachi, the Italian word for persimmons, was borrowed from the Japanese kaki. Fuyus or non-astringent cachi are called cachi mela (literally, ‘persimmon apple’). Like apples, these persimmons can be eaten firm. Hachiya or astringent cachi, on the other hand, contain bitter tannins when crisp and leave a furry aftertaste if eaten too hastily. I learnt this the hard way when I mistook a firm hachiya for a fuyu! So, to avoid that puckering sensation on your lips, hachiyas should be left to thoroughly ripen and soften to a wobbly, jam-like state.
Until recently, I had only ever eaten hachiya persimmons in the way I would eat a dessert, with their skin as a bowl and a spoon to scoop and slurp on their syrupy-sweet pulp. Those cratefuls of rapidly ripening hachiyas, however, left me needing to find a quick and alternate way of consuming them. As soon as the antibiotics started to take effect, I began baking a series of cakes with hachiya persimmons. Here is a recipe, inspired by elements from Emiko Davies’ and Marianna Franchi’s, for a spongy yet moist persimmon and walnut cake.
- 2 eggs
- 170 g sugar
- 50 ml olive oil
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
- 300 g persimmon pulp, pureed (you’ll need about 3 very ripe medium-sized hachiya persimmons)
- 100 g walnuts, finely ground
- 200 g flour, sifted
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- a pinch of salt
- butter, for greasing baking tin
- Icing sugar, for dusting (optional)
- Preheat oven to 180 degrees.
- Beat eggs and sugar until pale and thick.
- Slowly add olive oil to batter while mixing.
- Add persimmon pulp and cinnamon and mix.
- Add ground walnuts, flour, baking powder and salt to batter. Mix until well-combined.
- Pour batter into a greased cake tin (I used one with a 26 cm diameter).
- Bake for 30-40 minutes (or until cake skewer comes out clean).
- Leave to cool and serve dusted with icing sugar.
N.B. Photos and recipe in this post updated on 02.12.2016. Recipe also published on Italy Magazine at this link.