According to certain botanists, including Vavilov and Zeven, the persimmon originated in northern and central China. These are areas that still show great biodiversity in this fruit (more than 800 cultivars). According to other studies the area is vaster and also includes south-eastern Asian countries, from Assam to Indochina.
Even if there is some doubt as to the exact region of origin, documents from the Han Dynasty (from 206 BC to 220 AD) cite the cultivation of persimmons. Today many varieties are cultivated in large quantities from Yunnan, in the south, to Manchuria in the north. Yellow and red cachi, with or without seeds, flat or oval in shape, are produced by high-stemmed centuries-old trees. They may be sweet or astringent and many conservation techniques are practised. The Chinese language has no less than 1,072 words (including names, synonyms, homonyms, cultivar names) for the persimmon. There are also innumerable means of processing the fruit. It is transformed into vinegar, wine and oil. It is dried in many ways and used to produce sweets and ice-creams. The leaves are also used to make tea.
With respect to persimmon vinegar, there is historical documentation of its consumption in the north of the country at the time of the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279 AD). During a journey in the western part of the Province of Henan (now the District of Shanzhou), a high-level official of the emperor, the Minister of Bianliang, noted that persimmons were a local speciality used to make vinegar.
He transported the persimmon vinegar to Bianliang (the modern city of Kaifeng) and gave it to the emperor, who liked it greatly. The vinegar was therefore considered to be a tribute, but also a gift. From then on, this tribute was constantly passed down and also widespread in Jinshan.
The elders recall that since time immemorial vinegar has been made with persimmons, instead of fermenting the wheat as in other parts of China, on the mountains of Qingling. The farmers were once very poor and the harvest was not sufficient to feed them, and so they turned to the production of persimmon vinegar.
Two varieties of persimmon can be used to make a good traditional vinegar, the cup-shaped or the shehuo variety.
The first variety is the size and shape of a cup and as small as a ping pong ball. It is brightly coloured, juicy and has a thick skin. It matures late, generally after the period known as the ""Descent of the ice"" that occurs around the middle of October in the Chinese lunar calendar.
The Shehuo variety is large, with a thicker and very shiny skin as well as a larger core. This variety also matures towards the middle of October.
The persimmons are collected in the mountainous regions of Beimi from trees that are more than ten years old. The temperatures are lower in these mountains, so the persimmon takes longer to mature and develops more sugar. In addition, no fertilisers and pesticides are required because of the uncontaminated land and low temperatures.
The harvest is undertaken by the elderly when the persimmons are mature and rather soft, indicating that the level of sugar is sufficiently high.
There are a number of ways to make traditional persimmon vinegar. The simplest one requires that the fruit is washed and cleaned thoroughly, removing the Calyx Diospyri Kaki, that is the residue of the chalice that created the fruit and that traditional Chinese medicine uses in the form of a herbal tea.
The persimmons are then left to dry in the air. After drying they are placed in a traditional terracotta vase (filled to mid-point) that has been washed with boiling water. It is covered and then sealed with a cotton sheet and white plastic sheet, tying it off with string to prevent insects from entering.
The vases are left in a cool, dry and ventilated spot and fermentation takes at least 6-9 months. Impurities must be filtered from the vinegar before use.
persimmon vinegar has an intense acidic flavour and fruity flavour. It is a delicate orange-red colour. It has an acidic and sweet aroma with a slight winey fragrance.
It is consumed as is or eggs and beans may be soaked in the product and can also be used for medicinal purposes.
Production is very limited and for family use only. It is a very long procedure that does not sit well with the rapid pace of modern life.
The industrially-produced persimmon vinegar is less costly and more readily available on the market and so is placing the survival of the traditional artisan product at risk.
The persimmons are often acquired outside the local area as there is little usable land in the area of Quingling, in the District of Lantian. The people are also moving into urban areas in search of work and local cuisine is increasingly based on industrial products. There is a strong risk that knowledge of production and the persimmon itself will be lost.