"Deliciousness itself" is how Mark Twain referred to the cherimoya, more commonly known as the custard apple.
North County consumers who taste this locally grown exotic fruit for the first time may well agree. The fruit's ungainly exterior, perhaps best described as a monstrous strawberry covered in bumpy, green scales, boasts a custardy white flesh that brings to mind a blend of ripe banana, pineapple and strawberry.
The Cherimoya, or annona cherimola, is native to the mountains of Peru and Ecuador. The first groves were planted in California more than a century ago. Although demand is increasingly exceeding supply, California remains the only state where cherimoyas are grown commercially.
The need for ideal elevation and climatic conditions, as well as labor-intensive hand-pollination of the cherimoya flower, prevent the fruit from attaining the popularity of other sub-tropicals commonly found in supermarkets.
However, exotic fruit grower Paul Thomson of Vista sees potential for expanded production. "It's an excellent fruit that thrives in coastal climates," said Thomson. The special handling it requires tends to make the cherimoya pricey, but its delicate flavor is making legions of converts.
George Emerich of Emerich Gardens in Fallbrook primarily grows the White variety because its fruit reaches a large size, averaging three pounds apiece and sometimes reaching four pounds. His grove of more than 100 trees also includes the Pierce, a smaller variety that averages one pound apiece, and the Nata, which has a higher acid content "and tastes a little more like pineapple."
"But production is highly variable because of the hand-pollination involved," he said.
Dick Souther, along with several other North County producers, is attempting to make the cherimoya more marketable. "It's without question my favorite fruit," said the Vista grower who planted the first of his 100 cherimoya trees just over five years ago.
"Not many people grow them because of the labor required, but the trees have an advantage in that this is the kind of crop you can control," he said.
Souther dedicates most of July and August to hand-pollinating his trees. Using a No. 2 sable paintbrush, he collects pollen in the evening from flowers in the fully-open male stage, and re-introduces it into flowers opened that morning.
"The insect which pollinates the flowers naturally in South America doesn't exist in our country and the fruit becomes almost grotesque if the tree self-pollinates," he said.
During the hand-pollination process, blooms must also be thinned, since overproduction will often result in small, misshapen fruit.
Pruning the trees requires additional care. "Cherimoyas can grow to 50 feet tall if you let them, so you have to prune each tree to manageable size to make pollination easier," he said.
Souther, who is an organic grower, raises mainly Whites and Ortons. To introduce cherimoyas to a wider audience, he and some of his colleagues are beginning to distribute the fruit by mail order. "This way we can pick the fruit at the peak of its flavor, and send it out the same day via UPS or first-day air," said Souther.
For Osborne Cox, who turned to growing fruit after retiring from the Army, the best tasting cherimoya is the Spanish variety.
This year, Cox's 20-year-old trees are laden with clusters of heart-shaped fruit hidden among the large, rubbery limbs. As a result of judicious annual pruning, the leafy branches form a spacious, shady arbor. Like many cherimoya connoisseurs, Cox doesn't grow the fruit commercially because of the labor involved. "Still," he says, "once you taste a cherimoya, you'll become hooked, just like we were."
Joe Hale's cherimoya grove in Vista grew out of his fascination with unusual fruit. "I like to experiment," says the retired Disney cartoonist, adding that, like most consumers, he had no idea what the fruit tasted like until his wife Beverly brought one home on a whim. Like Souther, Hale spends part of the summer months hand-pollinating his trees.
The cherimoya trees bloom from May to October, which means hand-pollination can be staggered. Although the fruit is generally available from November to April, cherimoyas are at their peak in January and February.
Cherimoyas are best when left to ripen at room temperature, much like an avocado. The fruit is ready to eat when it feels soft but not mushy and when the skin acquires a yellowish tinge. At that point, it can be refrigerated for up to a week. To eat, just slice the fruit in half, discard the large, black seeds, and scoop out the flesh with a spoon.
To some aficionados the fruit tastes best when served chilled, although the flavor is still delicious if it is served at room temperature. Cherimoyas are a good source of phosphorus, niacin and thiamine.
WHERE TO GET CHERIMOYAS
Dick and Suzie Souther, 2240 Elevado Road, Vista, 92084. 758-7151. Will pick on request with a day's notice. Sell at Vista Farmer's Market. Price is about $3 a pound. Will ship anywhere with money-back guarantee.
Joe and Beverly Hale, Old Possum Farm, 2333 Via Subria, Vista, 92084. 941-4832. Sell at Vista Farmer's Market, and will pick to order with a day's notice. Price is about $3 a pound.
George Emerich, Emerich Gardens, 152 S. Stagecoach Lane, Fallbrook, 92028. 728-3281. Prefers to sell in large quantities. Price depends on availability.