The mighty power of the persimmon
“When I was young, there were more persimmon trees in Cheongdo,” recalled Park Cheol-soo, a native of the county who gained fame as the director of the animated movie “Oseam.”
“When the persimmon flowers blossomed, my friends and I would string the flowers along straws,” he continued. “When the persimmons ripened, we ran around town collecting any that fell from the trees.”
Cheongdo is surrounded by mountains, which account for 80 percent of its land. The rough terrain makes it difficult to cultivate rice or other grains ― hence the focus on persimmon trees. According to the county office, 55 percent of the persimmons harvested in the province and 18 percent nationwide are from Cheongdo. More than 5,000 households in the county grow the trees, which cover 1,611 hectares (6.2 square miles).
Despite its abundance, Cheongdo, which is well-known for its bull fights, is still relatively unknown for its persimmons, at least compared to Sangju, South Gyeongsang province, which in the Korean mind is virtually synonymous with the fruit.
Why? Most persimmons grown in the area are seedless. It’s difficult to make dried persimmons that can be consumed year-round, because the seeds prevent the fruit from contracting when dried. The seedless persimmon is only used to make hongsi, soft persimmons, meaning it should be consumed as soon as possible before it gets too soft.
Some people here say that a regular persimmon tree would become seedless if transplanted in Cheongdo.
“It’s not a groundless belief,” said Cho Gi-dong, an official in farm technology center of Cheongdo County Office. For most trees, fruit is produced after pollination and then produces seeds, but persimmon trees bear fruit without pollination and without seeds. And because Cheongdo is in a basin surrounded by high mountains, the frequently foggy morning weather in mid-May deters bees from carrying pollen at the time when the persimmon flowers blossom, resulting in fewer seeds in the fruit, Mr. Cho explained.
In order to make profits off-season, Cheongdo county has developed new ways to serve persimmons ― iced hongsi, frozen soft persimmon, competes with ice cream in this remote village; dried persimmons cut in small pieces vie with snack foods, and the county even makes persimmon wine. The village also sells clothing and bed covers dyed with juice made from fallen persimmons. These innovations have been lucrative: the county earned about 20 billion won ($19 million) from the fruit products last year.
The main streets of Cheongdo are bustling with residents selling their fruit products. Dried fruit snacks can be purchased at the nearby branch of the National Agricultural Cooperative, or at the store Dusan Nongwon (054-372-2428); they cost 15,000 won per kilogram ($6.50 per pound). Persimmon wines are sold at Cheongdo Wine (054-371-1100, www.gamwine.com); a bottle costs 22,000 won. You can also check out how to dye clothes or bed sheets with persimmon juice at the Yedeongil Ddara (054-372-8314) dyeworks.
Cheongdo county used to be much more populous; in 1967, it was home to 130,000 people, whereas nowadays it hosts barely 30,000. The persimmon trees are far more numerous.
While you’re there, drop by Unmun Temple, one of Korea’s more prominent nunneries. It currently is home to 250 women who use the temple to study for the sisterhood. Even at the height of persimmon season, the trees at the temple were still heavy with fruit.
“Because there are many things to eat, young students don’t bother to gather persimmons,” said Hakgam, a nun at Unmun. “When I was a student here in the 70s, persimmons were the only thing to eat in winter beside the regular meals,” she recalled. “There was nothing like eating the persimmons in winter out of big straw piles.”
by Sung Si-yoon
How to get to Cheongdo: Take Jungbu Naeryuk Expressway heading south. At Gimcheon intersection, get on the Gyeongbu Expressway heading for Daegu. Use the exit for Bukdaegu to take National road number 25 for Cheongdo.