Living

Tucked inside Granite Bay, a 103-year-old working persimmon orchard

Tosh Kuratomi passes by persimmon boxes at Otow Orchard in Granite Bay. The 103-year-old farm grows a variety of fruits and vegetables but specializes in persimmons: Hachiya, Fuyu, Maru, Hyakume, Vodka, Chocolate and hoshigaki. Otow’s harvests about 60,000 pounds of persimmons each season.
Tosh Kuratomi passes by persimmon boxes at Otow Orchard in Granite Bay. The 103-year-old farm grows a variety of fruits and vegetables but specializes in persimmons: Hachiya, Fuyu, Maru, Hyakume, Vodka, Chocolate and hoshigaki. Otow’s harvests about 60,000 pounds of persimmons each season. bnguyen@sacbee.com

Most people driving on busy Douglas Boulevard in Granite Bay may not realize that just one street away from the restaurants, coffee shops and fancy subdivisions is a century-old family farm and orchard. Tucked out of sight off the wide boulevards, and worlds away from the immaculately landscaped medians, is Otow Orchard, now in its 103rd year. In fact, the only hint of the orchard until you come upon the farm is a small hand-painted sign on Barton Road with a faded red arrow pointing down Eureka Road.

Anyone intrepid enough to make that left turn will discover a world of fresh-from-the-farm produce, of rich farmland steeped with history, and of gnarled trees producing tasty fruits. A snaky narrow driveway leads visitors to Otow’s fruit stand, which is surrounded by persimmon trees. The wood on the old barn beside the road is weathered and worn from years of sun, rain and wind. Packing boxes are piled high nearby.

While the fruit stand is open year around and sells a variety of fruits and vegetables, Otow Orchard specializes in persimmons: Hachiya, Fuyu, Maru, Hyakume, Vodka, Chocolate and hoshigaki.

Tosh Kuratomi and his wife, Christine Otow Kuratomi, handle the day-to-day operation of the orchard. They took over full-time farm responsibilities after both retired from office careers. The Kuratomis practice organic gardening methods, and are diligent about not overwatering. Tosh Kuratomi seems to know every tree on the orchard personally – its variety, its age, how well it produces, even who planted it and when. Many of the trees are 70 years old, and some are pushing 100. As he walks through the orchard, his eyes check for dead twigs, fruit that needs to be thinned, any signs of stress or disease.

Without missing a step or losing his train of thought as he leads a visitor through the orchard, he reaches up and pulls away misshapen or excess fruit, breaks off a dead twig. Touch, but don’t squeeze the fruit, he warns. Kuratomi estimates the orchard lost about 300 trees to the long drought gripping California. He plans to replace those trees with more persimmons as well as plums and peaches.

Autumn is persimmon season. As the days grow shorter, and the cooler fall weather slowly takes the place of summer, the leaves on the hundreds of persimmon trees in the orchard turn buttery yellow. The leaves fall away and carpet the ground until only the coral-orange-colored persimmons are left hanging on the trees like brightly colored baubles against the bare branches.

By season’s end the Kuratomis will have harvested 60,000 pounds of persimmons.

Fresh persimmons – mainly Hachiya and Fuyu – are mainstays for the farm, but visitors flock to Otow for its hoshigaki, which are dried persimmons and a Japanese delicacy. About 10,000 pounds of the crop goes to making hoshigaki.

The orchard belongs to Christine’s mother, Helen Otow, who was born and reared on the farm. Her parents purchased 20 acres in 1911 and planted their first persimmons. She’s lived here most of her life, except during World War II when Japanese-American citizens were sent to internment camps.

After the war, Helen and her husband, Seiichi Otow, grew the farm business back and began shipping fruit to the East Coast through the historic High Hand fruit sheds in Loomis. Otow Orchard produce was also popular in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and Hawaii.

As times changed and development encroached on farmland and the public showed a preference for the convenience of grocery store fruits and vegetables over fruit stands, Otow’s sought to change, too. Otow Orchard added more acreage – the orchard is now 45 acres – and more crops to its repertoire: peaches, tomatoes, squash, pomegranates, plums and more.

At 98, Helen Otow stills runs the business side of the farm and is tireless around the orchard, assembling boxes, picking produce, waiting on customers, sorting fruit, whatever needs to be done. Despite the struggles of being a farmer, especially in the 1990s when she saw many other aging farmers retire and sell their land to developers or close their fruit stands rather than try to compete with huge grocery stores, Tosh Kuratomi explained that his mother-in-law never stopped believing in the need for a family farm that sells fresh produce directly to the public.

OTOW ORCHARD

6232 Eureka Road, Granite Bay, CA 95746. (916) 791-1656 www.otoworchard.com.

Otow Orchard, a family-owned orchard selling persimmons, peaches, plums and other tree fruit as well as fresh vegetables. Open to the public Tuesday through Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Mondays.

FACTS ABOUT PERSIMMONS

Most people think there are only two types of persimmons: soft ones for baking and crisp ones for eating fresh off the tree. Tosh Kuratomi of Otow Orchard has an expanded list that surprises visitors to the farm.

▪ Hachiya: The Hachiya persimmon is very astringent until it is totally ripe and soft. Take a bite before it is ripe and your eyes will water, your lips will curl and you’ll shake your head. This is the one most commonly used for baking cookies and making pudding.

▪ Fuyu: Pick this one off the tree when it is firm and eat it like an apple. It is crisp and smooth at the same time. Slice them up and throw them in a fall salad.

▪ Maru: The flesh is the color of dark cocoa. As it ripens even the skin turns brown and to the untrained eye, it looks like it’s getting rotten. This persimmon is very flavorful.

▪ Hyakume: These are called cinnamon persimmons. The flesh inside is yellowish brown with dark brown flecks. As it ripens the entire inside turns deep brown.

▪ Vodka: The Hyakume persimmons that don’t get pollinated (they have no seeds) become vodka persimmons. Kuratomi adds a drop or two of vodka to the stem side, and lets the persimmons sit in an airtight container for a week. The result is a smooth, sweet flavored persimmon. “It’s a Japanese tradition, and it’s worth the wait,” he says.

▪ Chocolate: It is similar to the Maru in color and like the Hachiya in shape. The taste is sweet. Good for eating fresh.

Pat Rubin Cotton

WHAT IS HOSHIGAKI?

Otow Orchard harvests about 10,000 pounds of persimmons to be used for hoshigaki, which are dried persimmons. That translates to about 2,000 pounds of hoshigaki. It is a slow, tedious process. Only certain persimmons can be made into hoshigaki. They must have the right shape – rounded, no flat areas – and no bruises or bad spots. They are carefully picked and then peeled, all by hand, then hung to dry.

Over the next eight to 10 weeks Tosh Kuratomi and his wife, Christine Otow Kuratomi, will massage each fruit to encourage the sugars to come to the surface. At the end of the process the hoshigaki look like plump sticks of fruit leather that has been sprinkled with powdered sugar. The taste is sweet and mellow.

Kuratomi admits the first few times he tried making hoshigaki it was hard as a rock. He doesn’t have that problem anymore. Some say Otow Orchard hoshigaki is the best, and orders for its hoshigaki come from all across the United States.

Hoshigaki sells for about $35 per pound.

Wondering how to use hoshigaki? Here are a few ideas:

▪ Slice it lengthwise and remove the seeds. Slice the hoshigaki into thin strips and serve it on a plate with dried figs and nuts (almonds or walnuts, for example). It makes a great appetizer served with cheese (Havarti would be a good choice) and dry red wine.

▪ For an afternoon snack, try sliced hoshigaki with a cup of tea or coffee and a few slices of cheese and apple.

▪ Kuratomi suggests cutting it into thin strips and tossing it into a salad.

▪ Christine Kuratomi cuts them open, removes the seeds, stuffs them with soft cheese (she uses Brie) and then freezes them. Once frozen she takes them out and cuts them crosswise. “They’re decorative as well as delicious,” she said. “Traditionally we just eat them plain. That’s the reason we opt for a softer product.”

Persimmon tea

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Serves 4

Persimmon tea is said to relieve heartburn and acid reflux, but a friend of mine serves it before meals because it tastes so good. Since the recipe calls for hoshigaki, which are dried persimmons, you can make this tea any time of the year. To make hoshigaki, the persimmons are peeled, and then hung to air dry. They must be massaged during the process to bring out the sugars.

INGREDIENTS

2 quarts water

1⁄2 cup thinly sliced fresh ginger

3 large cinnamon sticks

1 cup dried persimmons (hoshigaki), sliced

INSTRUCTIONS

Simmer water, ginger and cinnamon sticks for 30 minutes. Strain and stir in hoshigaki. Add honey if you prefer a sweeter tea. Add more water if the flavor is too strong for your taste. Do not strain out persimmons. Keep refrigerated. Serve chilled.

Persimmon cookies

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes per batch

Makes 3 dozen

Many people are baffled when it comes to cooking with persimmons, but it seems everyone loves persimmon cookies. This recipe originally ran in The Sacramento Bee in 2004, but has remained a reader favorite. The cookies are moist and have a wonderful spicy fragrance. The great thing about persimmons is that you can freeze the pulp when they are in season to use at a later time for more cookies.

INGREDIENTS

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 ripe Hachiya persimmons, peeled, pulp puréed

2 cups all-purpose flour

1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon

1⁄2 teaspoon cloves

1⁄2 teaspoon nutmeg

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

1⁄2 cup butter

1 egg

1 cup raisins

1 cup chopped walnuts

INSTRUCTIONS

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Dissolve baking soda in persimmon pulp, and set aside.

Sift flour, spices and salt together, and set aside.

Cream together sugar and butter until fluffy, then beat in eggs and persimmons. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in raisins and nuts. Drop by teaspoon onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake each batch for 15 minutes.

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