Newly convinced that there must be something exciting going on below the ice cream fruit's scaly skin, I bought one at the farmers' market, sliced into it, and found exquisitely perfumed pulp. Depending on the variety of cherimoya, the creamy interior can smell like any combination of banana, pineapple, mango, papaya, peach, and raspberry. At full ripeness, this custard-like ivory flesh is soft enough to eat with a spoon.
The aromatic cherimoya (pronounced chair-ih-MOY-yuh) is a truly rare delight. Shrubby Annona cherimola trees grow only in regions with a climate similar to their native inter-Andean valleys -- the trees are thought to have originated in Ecuador, Colombia, and Bolivia. They'll tolerate mild temperatures near the ocean and they prefer slight altitude. Too much sunshine, however, will give the fruit a sunburn. In 1871, seeds from Mexico were brought to the coastal foothills of Carpinteria. Southern California remains the only region in the United States with the eternal spring weather necessary for producing these sweet, heart-shaped delicacies.
Though cherimoya trees do bear fragrant blossoms, their hermaphroditic life cycle and tightly closed petals make it difficult for pollinators to reach the pollen at the appropriate time. The tiny beetle tasked with this important job lives exclusively in the tree's land of origin. Golden State producers must therefore rely on hand-pollination. Using thin paintbrushes, producers collect pollen from male flowers and then transfer this pollen to female flowers, which are differentiated by the closure of their three fleshy petals. Hand-pollination requires quick and careful work but the process actually leads to larger fruits and an extended harvest season.
A cherimoya fruit can weigh up to six pounds and can grow to eight inches in length. There are numerous cultivated varieties with unique forms, such as the Tetilado variety with its nipple-like protrusions and the Tuberculada variety with its wart-like tips. All cherimoyas are harvested when still firm. Like avocados, they ripen at room temperature, softening within 3 to 5 days. To determine whether a green cherimoya is ready to be picked, Bolivian farmers shake the fruit and listen for the sound of the inedible, loose seeds. Italian farmers, on the other hand, choose to wait until a sweet aroma can be perceived from a distance.
Whichever method you employ when selecting cherimoyas at the farmers' market, be sure to act fast. Their season lasts from December through May.
These smoothies are meant to be thick, with a consistency similar to that of a milkshake. If you prefer your smoothie to be thinner, simply add a splash of milk.
Makes 1 1/3 cups (perfect for two small servings)
1 ripe cherimoya
½ ripe banana, sliced and frozen
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
¼ cup yogurt
1 teaspoon honey
Slice the cherimoya in half. Scoop the creamy flesh into a blender, discarding the black seeds. Add the frozen banana slices and lemon juice. Blend on high for about two minutes, or until smooth. Add the yogurt and honey, and then blend for 30 seconds. If it's a special occasion, serve the smoothies in frosty, chilled glasses (with a splash of rum).