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Cachi -- Persimmons

As any foreigner who lives in Italy and learns the language well soon discovers, Italian is not uniform: Accents change dramatically from place to place, as do expressions and ways of saying things. This state of affairs is historic in origin; up until the 1850s Italy was a patchwork of states, principalities, and areas under foreign control (the Veneto, for example, was Austrian). Most of the people were poor and few traveled; therefore local dialects, many of which should be recognized as distinct languages, were the rule, and communicating with someone who was from elsewhere could be extremely difficult -- even if elsewhere was just the other side of the mountain. The few people who did travel or occupy positions of power did of course need to communicate, so they learned Tuscan of the sort spoken in Florence and Siena as well, selecting it to be the Peninsular language because it was what Dante used in writing the Divina Commedia. Therefore, Tuscan became Italian: The language spoken by everyone within Tuscany, and by aristocrats and officials elsewhere.

Little happened to change this picture following the unification of Italy in the early 1860s (Rome, the last piece of the puzzle, became Italian in 1872), despite the institution of universal elementary schooling. At least that's the conclusion one draws from the introduction to Cacciucco Pellegrino Artusi wrote in 1891: "Cacciucco! Let me say something about this word, which is probably not understood except in Tuscany and along the Tyrrhenian coast, as the word brodetto takes its place in the towns along the Adriatic. In Florence, on the other hand, brodetto is an egg soup served at Easter, made by crumbling bread in broth and thickening the mixture with beaten eggs and lemon juice. The confusion between these and other similar-sounding words from province to province in Italy is so bad that it wouldn’t take much to make a second Babel. Now that our country is unified, the unification of spoken Italian, which few promote and many hinder, perhaps because of misplaced pride, or perhaps because they are comfortable with their dialects, seems to me a logical next step." (From The Art of Eating Well, my translation of Artusi's book, published by Random House in 1996).

The Fascists did make a concerted attempt to impose Italian throughout the country during their rule (1922-43), and television and radio have spread its use much more effectively since then, but dialects are not dead. Far from it; in many parts of the country, north, middle, and south, you can be talking with someone in Italian, while everyone else in the room is speaking the local dialect, and the person you're talking with will shift into the dialect to say something to one of the other people in the room (who will reply in dialect, but talk to you in Italian). It can be a little disconcerting, but one gets used to it, and now command of Italian serves as a rough indicator of how well educated a person is; the better the education the better the Italian (including the use of subjunctives and conditionals, which can be quite approximate among those who haven't had much schooling), and those who have university degrees often try to mask their regional accents. This outside of Tuscany; in Tuscany they'll have the grammar down, but the intensity of the accent decreases with increasing education. Since education is directly correlated with professional status, which in turn correlates fairly well with social status, a person's command of Italian also gives a rough idea of his or her social status -- neither a Primario (the doctor in charge of a hospital ward) nor an intellectual is going to want to sound like the guy who lugs meat in the city's central market.

Of course in Tuscany, which is where I live, there are expressions and words that don't exist in official Italian; for example, if you arrive late to a meeting, saying you did like Mr. Nardi (ho fatto come il Nardi), in Florence people will mentally finish the rhyme -- ho cominciato presto e ho finito tardi, started out early and ended up late -- and nod. Elsewhere you might simply get a blank stare. The same thing can happen with persimmons: In the town of Murlo, south of Siena, they're called pomi, in Rome they're called cachi (both cs hard) and in Florence they're called diospri. I recently saw a tree laden with fruit at Conte Pierlavise di Serego Alighieri's home in the Veneto, and said, "I like your diospri." He looked blank, followed my gaze, and said, "Oh. You mean Cachi. Never heard anyone call them diospri before."

Though they originated in the Orient, Italy has lots of persimmon trees, both in people's yards and in the gardens of estates. Their popularity is actually not that surprising. The trees are quite pretty, and the fruit, bright golden-orange orbs, adds a pleasing splash of color during late autumn, when most things look rather drab. The fruits themselves are quite firm until they ripen, at which point they become voluptuously soft, and almost gelatinous in texture. There are many varieties of persimmon that ripen over the autumn months, from September through December. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two groups: Non-astringent and astringent. Non-astringent persimmons are sweet both before and after they ripen. Astringent persimmons instead contain alum, and are woody-tongued astringent tannic until they ripen, at which point the tannicity fades: The sweetness of the fruit comes forth, and one suddenly understands why they were associated with the Gods (diosperi).

Purchasing persimmons: Ripe persimmons are too delicate to travel well, and though I have seen them in Italian markets (carefully packed in padded Styrofoam trays), all I have seen in American markets are the unripe ones. In either case you'll want fruit that looks nice and is firm and blemish-free. Non-astringent persimmons can be eaten like apples, go into a variety of Oriental dishes, or they can be ripened (you will want to ripen astringent ones regardless); one site I checked suggested putting them in a plastic bag with a banana to hasten the ripening. They are ripe when their skins loose their opacity, develop a full brilliant red-orange color, and give rather the way a water balloon does when pressed with a finger.

Given the considerable number of persimmon trees in Italy, one would expect lots of recipes for them. Oddly enough, no: Since what's available is astringent, people either buy them ripe or ripen them, and then eat them by discarding the stem, quartering them, and scooping out the flesh with a spoon, discarding seeds and avoiding any white veins the persimmon flesh may contain, because they tend to be bitter. The only thing I have found is Cachi al Liquore, Persimmons with the liqueur of choice. To serve 4 you'll need:

  • 7 ripe persimmons
  • 2 shots of Strega or something along those lines
  • 2 tablespoons sugar

Quarter the persimmons and scoop the flesh into a bowl, while discarding the seeds.

Mash the flesh with the flat of a fork, removing any whitish strings you may see, then stir in the sugar and the liqueur and mix well. Chill for a couple of hours or more, spoon the mixture into cups, and serve.

And this too: Torta di Cachi, a rich persimmon cake.

This just in: a tasty persimmon salad!

SOME NON-ITALIAN THINGS OFF THE NET:

The Persimmon Cookbook
A collection of persimmon recipes ranging from persimmon ice-cream pie to persimmon loaf and several varieties of persimmon pudding; if you wait until the page loads fully the rather shocking, persimmon-orange background goes away.

Persimmon Spice Cake
A brilliant red page for a cake that does look interesting.

A Presto,
Kyle Phillips

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