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January, 2011

Cherimoya

By Dennis Linden

The Cherimoya is probably one of the strangest looking specialty fruits that Melissa’s offers seasonally
.

CherimoyaThe next several months, as the harvest gets under way, this unique fruit will be at its peak of flavor, although always limited in supply. Your search for this luscious fruit should focus on upscale retailers, where you will have the best chance of finding it. Your hunt will be rewarded one-hundred fold with the first bite! The fruit looks more like a prop from the set of a Star Trek episode, playing the role of a fruit from a distant planet. Its off-white, creamy interior pulp, containing many large black seeds, is covered by a moderately tough, inedible, dragon-green skin of overlapping fingernail-shaped structures called carpals that look an awful lot like predator scales!

Though the fruit’s delicious taste is definitely out of this world, even those known for their expertise in verbiage have found it difficult to describe. Mark Twain could only write that the fruit was “deliciousness itself” without embellishing on this rather noncommittal description. In both texture and taste, I would describe the fruit as nature’s version of brown sugar custard. However, since flavor is such a subjective thing, may I suggest that the reader spend some very flavorsome moments of taste-testing to come up with your own flavor profile of this strange and unique fruit!

Today, Cherimoyas are grown commercially in limited volume by a few growers in Southern California. The fruit’s early origins can be traced to the tropical regions of southern Ecuador and northern Peru, where it still grows wild. Cherimoya is a very labor intensive crop to tend, which accounts for its limited availability even during peak harvest season. For instance, if left to pollinate naturally, Cherimoya flowers would have a success rate of about 5% in becoming actual fruit and that meager yield would be very undersized. So it is necessary to hand-pollinate each blossom on every tree, a tedious task that has always limited production. To understand why this fruit is worth such TLC in the orchard, as well as high pricing at retail outlets, will take only a single bite. Simply heaven on your palate!

When selecting Cherimoya in the marketplace, choose fruit that is firm and still unripe. Then ripen the fruit at home by storing at room temperature in a dark place, keeping it out of direct sunlight. The skin may turn brownish as the cherimoya matures, but this discoloration does not affect the interior fruit. Check the fruit every few days for softness until it is like an almost ripe avocado; then give it another day or two for the sugars to develop before using. Be careful not to wait too long as the fruit’s very high sugar content will start to ferment rapidly, causing spoilage. Once ripe, a cherimoya will hold its freshness for about four days in a refrigerator if wrapped in a paper towel. A moot point, since a ripe cherimoya has a very high “mortality” rate once the person doing the ripening discovers it!

To eat, cut the cherimoya in half lengthways and either: (1) eat out of hand, by scooping out succulent spoonfuls or (2) peel the entire fruit and then cut into cubes for use as a fresh ingredient, like adding to a fruit salad or purée for mousse, sauces and tasty tropical cocktail drinks. Be aware that, like apples, cherimoya fruit will brown quickly when exposed to oxygen (air). This is easily avoided by dipping the fruit in lemon water. Try freezing those cubes to be eaten like ice-cream, simply scrumptious!

Under no circumstances should one consume the large, black seeds as they are quite toxic and will make one extremely sick, even blindness has resulted from their consumption. Interestingly, free range pigs in South America forage on whole wild cherimoya and seem to be the only critters immune to its pit’s toxicity. Another moot point, but the obscure fact could come up if the reader ever gets on Jeopardy! Cherimoya -- its name comes from the ancient Quechua language of the Incas, who built a pre-Colombian civilization in the Andes and reserved this fruit for royalty. Peak production for the unique fruit is January through April. So be on the lookout for this unusual fruit. Look both ways before purchasing, just in case there are any Incas in the area who would object, and then enjoy a bit of fruit heaven. Once tasted, you will agree that this fruit is certainly fit for kings!