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AT THE MARKET

Exotic Subtropical Fruit Is Worth Its Price in Flavor : At about $7 a pound, the cherimoya draws few fans. But the blend of fresh flavors it offers is popular with those who know what it is.

January 06, 1994|RODNEY BOSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a price tag that hovers around $7 a pound, the dear cherimoya may never earn "major mover" status for produce merchants.

Despite its cost, however, this South American highlands native continues to slowly attract retail buyers.

Clearly, it's all in the flavor.

"They are considered an exotic, but the real fact is that they are one of the most exquisitely delicious fruits in the world," Camarillo grower John Wooten said.

Not given to a wide range of culinary versatility, this juicy fruit is meant to be eaten fresh. The tender, cream-colored flesh of the near heart-shaped cherimoya imparts an exotic blend of vanilla custard, papaya, pineapple and banana flavors.

"It's a complete dessert," said Wooten, who sells the fruit from his 12 trees at Ventura's Saturday farmers market. "It doesn't need to be served with anything else."

It is best when served chilled; simply halve the fruit lengthwise and scoop the low-acid flesh with a spoon. The many plump, watermelon-like seeds you will encounter are not edible but easily removed.

"They are really popular for the people who know what they are," said Karen Wetzel, manager of the Ventura County Farmers' Markets. "But it's still an unknown."

You can't miss this weighty, subtropical fruit on the produce shelf, however. Its yellowish, pale-green skin is distinguished by a uniquely faceted, scale-like appearance.

Considering that a single cherimoya generally weighs anywhere from one-half to three pounds or more--and cost $3 to $7 per pound--the fruit may be destined to remain a specialty no matter how unique its taste.

The reason for inflated prices: Cherimoya production is extremely labor-intensive from start to finish.

An arduous and time-consuming process of hand-pollinating the blossoms is required to ensure an abundant crop. And although the fruit is handpicked while still very firm, it must be handled cautiously all the way from the field to the marketplace to prevent bruising.

Still, growers' efforts are reaping rewards.

"We are seeing a lot of (sales) growth outside California and very strong demand in Canada and Japan," said Peter Nichols, proprietor of California Tropics in Carpinteria, one of the industry's largest growers and packers. (California sales, Nichols said, have remained stagnant, though constant.)

A large percentage of thS. cherimoya production is grown in the moderate Southern California coastal region. This includes about 20 Ventura County growers tending to a small amount of acreage along the coastal belt and larger producers in the Carpinteria and Santa Barbara areas. Foreign competition comes mainly from Spain and South America.

Enthusiasts can expect relief soon from current premium prices.

The Los Angeles-based Fresh Produce Council, an industry trade group, reports that California growers are gearing up for what may be one of their largest crops ever.

"Depending on the retailer, you'll see prices come down into the $4.99- to $3.99-per-pound range," Nichols said.

When purchasing cherimoyas: Select firm fruit of any size, and avoid those that are overly soft and have dark brown surfaces.

The fruit should be left to ripen at room temperature much like an avocado. Cherimoyas will not ripen in the refrigerator.

Ripeness is determined when the skin pales, turns brownish and yields to gentle palm pressure. Be careful while testing; the fruit bruises easily.

If upon slicing you discover that the fruit is rubbery and not yielding to gentle pressure, Nichols said it can be left to ripen for another day or two.

Once ripe, your fruit can be refrigerated about four days, but don't allow it to become squishy.

Writer and eater Rodney Bosch contributes a bimonthly column to Ventura County Life. You can write to him at 5200 Valentine Road, Suite 140, Ventura 93003, or send faxes to 658-5576.

Details

RECIPE

The following recipe was provided by California Tropics:

Southwest Cherimoya-Chicken Salad

4 to 5 cups shredded lettuce leaves

2 cups julienne strips of cooked chicken breast

2 cups cherimoya chunks, peeled and seeded (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1 cup julienne strips red, yellow or green pepper

1/2 cup red onion strips

Dressing:

1/4 cup orange juice

1/3 cup light olive oil or vegetable oil

1 fresh or dried chili, seeded and minced (jalapeno, Serrano or small Anaheim)

1 tablespoon, chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon honey

dash of salt

In a large bowl, combine lettuce, chicken, cherimoya, pepper and onion. In a food processor or blender, place juice, oil, chili, cilantro, honey and salt. Cover and process until mixture is smooth and well blended. Toss salad with dressing; garnish with fresh cilantro sprigs. Makes three to four main dish salads.

* FYI: The local cherimoya harvest generally begins in November and continues into May. The fruit is available at upscale grocery stores, gourmet markets and area farmers markets.

* TIPS: Best when eaten fresh when chilled, simply halve lengthwise and scoop flesh with a spoon. The fruit can also be peeled and quartered for salads and compotes. Try in sorbets, or blend into tropical drinks.

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