"Step aside, ma'am." These are not the words you want to hear from a TSA agent at the airport. But after a routine security swab of my carry-on luggage, the very stern looking officer and a growing number of concerned co-workers gathered around me and my bag. Another swab, more looks, more agents and in the most serious tone, "Ma'am, have you been on or around any farms or involved in any farm related activity?" "We're going to have to examine your bag." Step this way. And there I was. Busted. Setting off red flags and warning lights for a pronounced presence of agricultural residue and traces of fertilizer. Was it contraband? Explosives? No. It was a carry-on full of cherimoya. A fruit worthy of a shake down.
If you have never had a cherimoya, it is hard to describe the spell this seductive fruit can cast over you. I had my first taste on a visit to California where I was scouring farmers' markets for book research (and lunch). Cherimoya, though not lovely, are visually striking - they never fail to catch the eye of market goers, often inspiring the question, "What is that?" The fruit looks like some sort of reptilian egg. Its leathery, indented, green skin seems more animal than vegetable. I had to try one.
One bite in and this fruit had a new fan. The pulp of the cherimoya is silky and yielding, like a firm flan. The flavor is a heady mix of banana and pineapple with perhaps a little strawberry and kiwi thrown in. Its fruity taste is light and refreshing, but the creamy, custardy texture is also comforting to eat. Like a homemade pudding made virtuous - that's the beauty of the cherimoya. A treasure of the market you will want to smuggle home.
A Brief History
Cherimoya are native to the of valleys of Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. The fruit has naturalized across Central and South America. Since the mid-1700s, the fruit has been introduced around the globe in the Mediterranean-climate areas of Europe and regions of Asia and Africa that are suitable to the fruit's very specific climate needs. In the United States, cherimoya was first planted in 1790 in Hawaii, where the fruit has since naturalized, and in California in 1871. Although Florida had some unsuccessful attempts at growing cherimoya, Hawaii and California are the only two states that have proven suitable for growing the fruit, the latter being the only state that produces cherimoya commercially.
- Mark Twain called cherimoya "the most delicious fruit known to man."
- Cherimoya are part of the custard apple family that also includes soursop and pawpaw but is not, in fact, a custard apple. Although they are often called by the same name, the cherimoya, Annona cherimola, is different from and considered by many to be superior in taste to the custard apple, Annona reticulata.
- The seeds, leaves and limbs contain poisonous alkaloids that have been used to kill lice.
Cherimoya requires a very specific climate to grow. They enjoy sun, but will scorch if over-exposed. They tolerate only short, light frosts, but need between 50 to100 chill hours (exposure to cold temperatures that release the tree from dormancy) to produce fruit. They need a good soaking during their growing cycle but are susceptible to root rot if they stay damp for too long. These precise demands severely limit the commercial viability of cherimoya. Currently, that area is limited to the coastal and foothill areas of southern California that are slightly elevated and about three to 15 miles from the ocean. Production has had limited success in warmer pockets as far north as San Francisco and slightly inland, but the trees will not tolerate the heat of the desert.
Cherimoya trees blossom into fragrant flowers that open in two stages, first as female and then as male blooms. Cultivated trees are painstakingly hand pollinated by a patient grower who uses a paint brush to carefully distribute pollen to blossoming trees.
There is such a high demand for cherimoya locally that very little of the fruit ever leaves California. Eaters' love of the fruit and its temperamental nature often causes demand to supersede supply and ensures that cherimoya demand a high price on both the wholesale and retail level. It's not uncommon to see prices that range from six to eight dollars a pound, or about one fruit.
Cherimoya ripens from October through May but the precise growing season will fluctuate slightly with the weather conditions.
Cherimoya trees are considered to be generally disease-free. The most common pests include ants and snails that attempt to climb the trees to reach the sweet fruit but can easily be deterred with physical barriers around the trunk.
Cherimoya fruit ranges in color from very deep green to yellowish-green. They turn brown when old. The fruit is harvested when still firm and is allowed to ripen off the tree. Fully ripened fruit is extremely soft and fragile and would easily be damaged in the market, so expect to wait a few days from purchase to enjoy your cherimoya.
When ripe they are very soft and have a custard-like texture, like an over-ripe banana but without the starchy quality. The pulp is dotted with bean-like seeds that are poisonous.
Nutrition and Effects on the Body
Even though its texture is as creamy and rich as ice cream, cherimoya contain no fat or cholesterol. The fruit is high in fiber, is a good source of Vitamin C and B vitamins.
Cherimoya seeds are poisonous, their toxicity amplified by being crushed.
What to Do with It and Cooking
Cherimoya's delicate texture is a treat to enjoy completely unaltered. Simply wash the fruit, cut it in half from stem to blossom end and scoop out the tender, creamy pulp, being careful to remove the seeds as you go. The fruit is exquisite enjoyed just as it is, perhaps slightly chilled, maybe with a squeeze of lime over top. If you want to get creative, enjoy cherimoya in ways that highlight their flavor and texture:
Smoothies and shakes: The creamy texture of the fruit lends itself to blending bliss. Combine the pulp of the cherimoya with other fruits, such as bananas, chunked pineapple or a few berries or blend it on its own with a splash of coconut milk for a creamy shake without the dairy.
Salad: Cherimoya is a surprising addition to a fruit salad. The fruit's smooth texture would be great added to any mix but is particularly delightful alongside melon or other tropical fruit such as mango.
Tart: An easy dessert can be thrown together in a flash by baking an empty tart shell and filling it with mashed cherimoya pulp. Top with berries and a few drops of lemon or lime juice and dessert is ready.
Cocktail time: Take your pina colada to the next level by pureeing skinned and seeded cherimoya with your coconut milk and pineapple. Rum, optional.
Fully ripened cherimoya can be refrigerated for one to two days but no longer.
Cherimoya Paleta (Ice Pops)
These ice pops are a great way to enjoy the delightful flavor of cherimoya. I like to accentuate the taste of the fruit with a little spice, but you can leave that out if you just want to have the fruit's flavor front and center. Making paletas is also a great way to extend cherimoya's fleeting shelf life a little longer - they will keep in the freezer for up to one month.
¼ cup sugar
2 pounds cherimoya pulp, from about two fruits
Zest and juice of one lime (about ¼ cup)
Pinch of salt
Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg (optional)
Pinch of chili powder (optional)
In a small saucepan, combine sugar with ½ cup water and boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved, about a minute or two. Cool the syrup completely. In a blender, combine the syrup, cherimoya, lime zest and juice, salt and spices, if using, and puree until smooth. Divide the puree between ice pop molds or paper cups. Insert ice pop sticks into molds, according to mold directions. If using paper cups, cover each cup with plastic wrap and poke an ice pop stick through it and almost down to the bottom of the cup. Freeze pops until solid, at least four hours.