October's color is orange. It's the color of burnish, of time's passage, of maturity. Orange is yellow as an old man, when he's mellow and soft and warmed by memories of his long-ago conquests.
Driving through the South in October, or at least those parts of the South that still have roadside ditches and overgrown fencerows, you might catch sight of a small tree laden with hundred of hot orange fruits about the size of a chestnut. This is a wild persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, the unusual indigenous fruit that for me defines the South and its fall season.
Pappaw, my West grandfather, used to say that persimmons were much rarer in his old age than they had been in his youth, and he blamed an idle pursuit of the rich since the trees' exceptionally hard wood had been stripped from the countryside to fashion golf clubs. (The persimmon is related to tropical ebony, the source of another durable wood.) Old timers like Pappaw counted themselves lucky to have a persimmon tree around, and they safeguarded them for the fruit. Likewise, public parks and college campuses offered refuge from the woodsman's saw, and my mother reports collecting persimmons by the gallon from mature old trees in the Alcoa city park near Nanny's house. Now that futuristic metal alloys have replaced wood in golf clubs, the tree is staging a comeback around the rural South. My mother has an entire thicket of small persimmons on her property near Greer, South Carolina, and I know of several large fruit-bearing specimens within a short drive of her house. Like a prime blackberry patch, you never forget the spot where you find a good persimmon tree.
The reason is that a ripe persimmon is unforgettable: almost too soft to pick up, it is like a teaspoon of custard wrapped in damp rice paper and it has a unique flavor that is intensely sweet and richly spiced, somewhat akin to pumpkin pie but more refined and exotic. An unripe persimmon is even more memorable, and you only need to taste it once in your life. More bitter than anything that grows, a half-ripe persimmon tastes like pure alum and will turn your mouth inside-out. I remember once hearing an old man say that a green persimmon "will pucker you up like a butthole." To avoid this truly gross experience, the proverbial wisdom of my boyhood was to avoid eating persimmons until the fruit has been touched by frost. Although I've since read that frost does not actually ripen the fruit, still the advice to hold off eating persimmons until late autumn holds true.
Given that the ripe fruit has the consistency of nature's own custard, it's hardly surprising that the best way to prepare them is in persimmon pudding, in which a little flour, butter and egg bind the pulp into a dense, moist cake. This is a "puddiing" only in the English sense of a "sweet dessert," but it's pure heaven, and so intense that thumb-sized slice will satisfy. One year while I was living in Paris, my mom froze a batch of persimmon pulp to make a persimmon pudding when I visited at Christmas. It was a big pudding, and even after we all ate at it, there was enough left over to take back to the Left Bank. A day or two later, David Tanis, the Chez Panisse chef who spends part of his year in Paris, invited me to dinner at is apartment on the rue Saint Jacques, and I took a slice of the pudding for him to taste. He liked it enough that he asked for my Mom's recipe and later included it in his book A Platter of Figs. "This recipe," he wrote, "comes from a cook in the South named (yes) Mrs. West, who regularly collects wild persimmons to make it."
This recipe for FRESH PERSIMMON BUTTER is also inspired by Mrs. West, although it's made with Asian persimmons bought at a local farmers market. There are two kinds of Asian persimmons widely available in California. The heart-shaped hachiya, like the American persimmon, is astringent when unripe and therefore only eaten when meltingly soft. The flatter fuyu, ABOVE, is non-astringent. It can be eaten while still crisp, and even when ripe it remains fairly firm. It's flavor is less intense than either the American persimmon or the hachiya, but when cooked down and doctored with spices and molasses in this smooth fruit butter, it approximates the taste of standing outdoors by a fencerow, eating mashy, ripe, orange persimmons on a cold Tennessee morning.
FRESH PERSIMMON BUTTER
Please note that persimmons do not have enough natural acidity to be safely canned, since low-acid foods can develop botulism during shelf storage. Accordingly this is a "fresh jam" that should be stored in the fridge and eaten within about a week. It can also be frozen.
5 pounds fuyu persimmons
1 cup water
1.5 cups sugar (or even less to taste—the fruit is very sweet on its own, and the sugar is just to add succulence and develop the natural flavor, in the same way that salt develops the flavor of savory foods.)
1 Tablespoon molasses
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1.5" cinnamon stick
1 Rinse persimmons, cut away stem and peel. Cut into 1/2" cubes.
2 Place sliced fruit in a small kettle with 1 cup water and simmer 20-25 minutes until soft. Pass pulp through a food mill. You should have about 5 cups of puree.
3 Return puree to the kettle and add sugar, molasses, lemon juice, vanilla extract and cinnamon. Taste and adjust sugar and lemon juice if necessary. Bring to a boil and then lower heat to a simmer. While constantly stirring, reduce to the consistency of apple sauce. It's ready when a teaspoon of puree holds its shape on a cold plate and the liquid no longer separates at the edges.
4 Refrigerate and eat within a week or else freeze in a snap-seal container.
5 pounds fruit yielded about 2 pints of butter