Cherimoyas, Our Little SecretDel Stewart

Cherimoyas have an image problem, a quite literal one. They look like a rolled up green armadillo, giving the uninitiated no clue whatsoever as to their subtle, sublime, complex taste. Not that this is an advice column, but if it were, a strong piece of advice would be to initiate yourself as soon as possible.

A Cherimoya on the Tree

Nino Cupaiuolo has been retired from a previous career for the past eleven years, and during that time he's been a San Diego County farmer. His pesticide-free farm, Primavera Orchards, is in the Gopher Canyon area, northeast of Vista. Not only does he grow cherimoyas, but also persimmons, tangerines, blueberries, and many other types of fruits.

Cupaiuolo got into growing cherimoyas simply because he bought one, loved the taste, and planted a seed in a pot where it sprouted and grew. This happened even before he owned his farm. Once he purchased his farm in 1999, he transplanted the seedling into the ground. “It started producing a very good quality fruit of a promising new variety of cherimoya.”

The cherimoya gods where kind to Cupaiuolo. “There's only a 1 in 500 to 1 in 1000 chance that a seedling would produce a good quality fruit.” It was a variety called Fortuna,which in Italian means “good luck,” and is appropriate to the situation. The good fortune not only shone on Cupaiuolo's farm career, but on residents of San Diego county by providing us with a super-fresh source of these exceptional and unique fruits.

There are challenges to growing them, which explains their little-bit-pricey-but-worth-it status. One is the length of time they take to produce. “Most seedlings take seven or eight years to show promise or lack of promise,” Cupaiuolo says. Planting a tree is a lengthy investment of time, because it will be that long before the farmer knows that a given tree is a producer or not.

Another challenge with cherimoyas is that, even if there are a lot of bees around the farm, self-pollination is pretty rare. In their original habitat in the foothills of the Andes, bees are not their natural pollinator. Cupaiuolo describes the problem: “The flower of the cherimoya is a tree-petal flower, and the petals are long and relatively fat,” not allowing enough room for bees or similar sized insects to pollinate them. “A person growing cherimoyas will have to help mother nature. Although there are a few small insects around the farm that can do it, generally speaking the farmer will have to gather the pollen and artificially pollinate the flower by various means.”

And having to pollinate them by hand is not the end of the pollination challenge. “Timing is important because the cherimoya flower has two stages. It goes through the female stage and then the male stage. The female stage lasts about eighteen hours and the male stage lasts about two hours,” and pollen from one stage flower is required to pollinate flowers in the other stage.

Cherimoya Blossom Early in the Female Stage

One very noticeable thing about a cherimoya is that it's divided into sections which almost look like scales. This structure is also present, although much too small to be seen, in the flower. Each section needs to be pollinated in order to have a well shaped fruit. If a section fails to be pollinated, its growth will be stunted, and the fruit will be a little misshapen. Although the imperfect ones are good to eat, thorough pollination creates the desired shape: plump and full.

As rare as the cherimoya is in our markets, it is not a new fruit to world or American agriculture. It is a member of the Annonaceae family which also includes the pawpaw, native to North America and the only tree in that family to grow naturally outside of the tropics. There are 40 varieties of Cherimoya grown in California alone, with another three hundred or so varieties world wide. Primavera Orchards mainly grows Fortuna, Pierce, Fino de Jete and a late variety called Booth.

Although their native habitat is around the equator, it is a relatively high altitude tropical fruit that not only doesn't mind a few cold winter nights in San Diego County, but requires them to produce a healthy harvest. There's a saying among the indigenous people of the Andes that the cherimoya tree doesn't like the snow but likes to see it in the distance.

Cherimoyas are a terrific experience just to eat by themselves. When ripe the give slightly to the touch, like an avocado. They'll ripen on the counter and then they can go into the fridge where they'll keep for a few days. Their flavor is subtle and complex, described as a mix of vanilla, papaya, banana, strawberry and even bubblegum. Mixing them with a large amount of strong flavored fruits such as bananas will overwhelm the subtlety and hide their flavor.

In Spain they'll be cut into thick round slices with a little orange juice drizzled on top and eaten with a fork and knife like a steak. Another choice is a cherimoya fruit cocktail with tangerines and blueberries, which goes well with a sweet liqueur or wine.

They can be frozen as well, but take the seeds out of the pulp before putting them in the freezer. A good treat on a warm day is a chocolate cherimoya smoothie blended with chocolate soy milk (be sure you get the seeds out before you blend it because a seed in the blender will make a serious racket and is slightly poisonous if it breaks open).

Cupaiuolo sells his cherimoyas through local markets as well as directly to consumers, some of them as far away as New Jersey. He can be reached at primaverafruit@sbcglobal.net or 760-213-3633. heart