Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

The strange and divine cherimoya

Exotic and aromatic, the cherimoya has been called nature’s masterpiece, one of the finest fruits in the world. To Mark Twain, it was “deliciousness itself.” Marcelo Duenas, a hairdresser in Englewood, agrees. A native of Ecuador (which is believed to be the birthplace of the cherimoya along with northern Peru), Duenas grew up eating the luscious fruit. But he rarely, if ever, purchases it here, even though many of the Latin American markets in Union City, where he currently makes his home, carry it. “They’re not sweet enough, like the ones in Ecuador,” he said of the locally available cherimoyas. In his homeland, he recalled, the fruit was so tender he could break open its skin with his hands.

“They sell them along the roadside in Ecuador,” said Maricel Presilla, an authority on Latin American food. “I’ve had them in Ecuador, which is the best place to have them. They’re creamy and vanilla-like. They have the perfect acidity. It’s like nothing you have ever tasted. It’s divine.” At her restaurants Cucharamama and Zafra in Hoboken, Presilla has, on occasion, served domestically grown cherimoyas as a dessert. “The problem with cherimoyas here is sometimes they’re not great,” she said. The flavor “all depends on how it’s handled. If it gets too cold in transport, it will never ripen correctly. In the groceries, people who handle them don’t know how.”

Tack on a price tag that can be upward of $6 a pound, and it’s no wonder the cherimoya doesn’t have a big following in this area, even among those who know it best.

Yet, exquisitely flavored cherimoyas are being grown in California. Much of the fruit from the larger growers, however, is exported, said Nino Cupaiuolo, president of the California Cherimoya Association in Saticoy, CA. Formerly an industrial equipment salesman in Lawrenceville, NJ, Cupaiuolo heads La Primavera Orchards in Vista (San Diego County), where he grows about a dozen varieties of cherimoya. The fruit of his 200 trees is sold almost exclusively to two markets in his area. “I sell it to them for $3.50 a pound and they resell it for $6 a pound,” he said. This season, he also plans to sell some by mail order.

A subtropical fruit that’s rich in fiber and contains calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin C, the cherimoya is characterized by carpals, overlapping fingernail-shaped exterior structures that make up its skin. Its name comes from the ancient Quechua language of the Incas, who built a pre-Colombian civilization in the Andes and reserved the fruit for royalty. “It’s a piece of edible history,” said Presilla.

One of the earliest recorded fruits of the New World, the cherimoya was brought to Haiti, Jamaica, Hawaii and Italy in the 1700s. In the late 1800s it was cultivated in India, Ceylon and Spain. California established its first commercial orchards for the fruit in the 1940s. There it remains “more or less an ethnic fruit,” said Cupaiuolo, popular with Mexicans, South Americans, and Filipinos.

“Cherimoyas are very finicky. You can’t grow them everywhere. In California they grow only in the area between Santa Barbara and San Diego. They don’t do well more than 20 miles inland,” he noted. Cultivation is a tricky affair, for the fruit must be hand-pollinated, which means the pollen must be collected from the male parts of the cherimoya flowers and then applied onto the female parts when they emerge. Each carpal on the fruit’s exterior represents one pollinated seed. Poor pollination results in oddly shaped fruit.

“They don’t fall from the tree. You have to pick them when they’re still hard. It has to ripen at room temperature, like an avocado. It’s ripe when it starts to give to the touch. If it’s mushy, it can be eaten, but it’s not at its prime,” said Cupaiuolo.

“Cherimoyas are no different than apples, pears and plums — there are a large number of varieties,” he said. “In California alone we have a collection that includes about 42 different varieties.” A research station in Malaga, Spain, has collected more than 300, he added. “The difference in the variety flavor is pretty much as big as the one you have in apples. The flavor of the fruit is the result of the balance between acid and sugar content.”

At market, cherimoyas should be green, maybe with a gold tinge, depending on the variety. If they appear black, “they were refrigerated at one point or another,” said Cupaiuolo. “Be patient when selecting it,” said Presilla. It will be hard at first, but let it sit at room temperature just until it starts to yield to the touch. “But don’t wait until it starts disintegrating,” she cautioned. “Think about a banana. It should yield, but not be mushy. It’s the same thing with a cherimoya.”

In Chile, where the cherimoya is considered a national fruit, popular custom calls for adding it to wine. “But cherimoya is such a glorious fruit by itself that I don’t think it should be tainted with anything,” said Presilla. Her only exception would be to use it to make a sorbet–“something that would not alter its beautiful flavor,” she explained.

Slightly chilled, a fully ripened cherimoya, halved, its custard-like flesh scooped out with a spoon, is best savored as is. “We need to reprogram ourselves when it comes to fruit, to enjoy the joy of fruit as dessert,” said Presilla. “Fruit is the best dessert you can have after dinner. All the elements of taste and perfume are there. And I can’t think of a better fruit than a cherimoya.”

What to do? More information on cherimoyas is available from the California Cherimoya Association, cherimoyas.org. Growers who sell fruit via mail order include:

Calimoya Exotic Fruits, Goleta, Calif.; website: calimoya.com; (805) 685-4189. $30 for a 4-pound box (3-5 cherimoyas), includes shipping.

La Primavera Orchards, Vista, Calif.; email to: primaverafruit@sbcglobal.net; (760) 630-1773. $4 per pound, plus shipping.