Food

Farmers Markets: Odd-looking cherimoya is a sublime find

— The cherimoya is a peculiar-looking, almost intimidating fruit — "like a pre-Columbian jade pine cone or the finial for a giant Inca four-poster bed," in Elizabeth Schneider's memorable words. But at its best it tastes sublime, with sweet, juicy, flan-like flesh and rich flavor blending papaya, banana and pineapple. Mark Twain famously called it "the most delicious fruit known to men," and if taste were all that counted, cherimoyas might outsell apples.

Alas, cherimoyas are exceptionally tricky to grow, select and ripen, and thus not well adapted to American industrial fruticulture and marketing. They are best bought at farmers markets, where educated shoppers can match the variety to the season and growing area, and where the fruit's flavor hasn't been diminished by storage or refrigeration.

So it's our treat that the farm of California's longtime cherimoya king, Anthony Brown, started selling at the Santa Monica farmers market for the first time last Wednesday, just as the season is reaching its peak.

Brown's family came west by covered wagon in 1862 and settled in 1871 in Carpinteria, where they farmed walnuts, lemons and later avocados. That same year the first cherimoya was planted 10 miles up the coast in Santa Barbara, where the equable climate — moderated by the ocean and protected from cold north winds by mountains — somewhat mimics conditions in the fruit's native range, at around 5,000 feet in the Andes.

Several times over the next century, growers tried to commercialize cherimoyas, most notably in Hollywood, where Jacob Miller and A.Z. Taft established small orchards. These attempts were never very successful, partly because problems with pollination were not fully understood and resolved. Moreover, although the cherimoya looks rugged, it is among the highest of fruits in natural production of ethylene, a gas that stimulates ripening. As a result, it can pass from hard, rubbery and inedible to overripe in a day or two, which made marketing problematic, especially in the years before rapid, temperature-controlled transportation.

Still, cherimoya trees were fairly common in home gardens such as the Brown family's, and Anthony and his twin brother, Jonathan, grew up savoring the fruits. They were impetuous youths who loved to surf and ride motorcycles, and they planted their first block at age 16 in 1967, when commercial groves were few.

"We decided that if we liked them, other people would," said Anthony, now 62, on a visit last Monday to his orchard. "When it was pointed out to us that previous attempts at commercialization had failed, all that did was get our hackles up."

Boosted by the growing demand for exotic fruits in the 1970s and 1980s, the venture flourished, and the family became California's largest cherimoya grower and packer. Joined by another brother, Steven, a sister, Emily Miles, and a half-brother, Peter Nichols, they shipped cherimoyas from as many as 40 other growers, and by the late 1980s and 1990s, their company, California Tropics, claimed 80% of the cherimoya market. They also were major growers of three other exotic subtropical fruits: passionfruit, feijoas and sapotes. In 2004, the family split their holdings among the siblings and stopped packing for others, but they still farm about 100 of the state's roughly 250 acres of cherimoyas.

Anthony grows 30 acres of cherimoyas at the Rincon Del Mar Ranch, 584 acres of a historic Mexican land grant that he bought in 1996. Overlooking Rincon Point, a famous surfing spot, it is paradise on a sunny late winter morning, with views of six Channel islands and the Carpinteria Valley, hawks soaring overhead, 40 horses at pasture and lush cherimoya orchards, bejeweled with emerald fruit.

The great majority of the state's cherimoyas are grown nearby in coastal areas of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, which are virtually free from the hard frosts that could greatly damage the trees. But under local conditions, the pistils (female parts) of cherimoya flowers dry out before they can be naturally pollinated, so every afternoon from May to September, Brown and his workers gather pollen and hand-pollinate the flowers just after they open. It's a laborious process, and as a result cherimoyas will never be cheap.

Although cherimoya varieties differ considerably in season, appearance and flavor, this information is not often available, even from vendors at farmers markets, but Brown's children Christine, 25, and Nicholas, 21, make a point of identifying their varieties when they sell at the Santa Barbara, Ojai and Santa Monica farmers markets. They also class the fruit by size and ripeness. Prices are $4 or $5 a pound.

Brown harvests four varieties, from November to June. Bays is early in season, round and very smooth, with a delicate flavor. Fino de Jete, from Spain, is mid- to late-season, medium to large, heart-shaped, pale and fine-textured; Brown says it can be watery, but others call it a favorite.

Brown came up with two of his varieties by crossing others in the early 1970s. Lisa, a hybrid of Bays and McPherson, is early to midseason, pale green, low-seeded, with fine texture and very good flavor; despite its name, which means "smooth" in Spanish, deep thumbprint-like markings cover its skin. Bonita, a cross of Booth and Pierce, is mid- to late-season, conical to heart-shaped, white-speckled, with firm flesh and rich flavor.

These four varieties are well adapted to Brown's coastal climate, but there are others, equally delicious, more suited to districts farther inland or in northern San Diego County, the state's other major growing area. These include Booth, which is late, medium to large, with distinctive bumps, speckled skin, lots of seeds and a particularly strong, rich flavor. Brown doesn't grow Booth because its skin develops unattractive rusting is his area. Pierce, mid- to late-season, heart-shaped to conical, with pale greenish skin, can be extremely sweet, but it tends to develop sugar spots that consumers misconstrue as blemishes.

Brown's favorite cherimoya for flavor is McPherson, which originated in Orange in 1933, although it is often misnamed Spain. It has a marvelously intense, well-balanced flavor, but Brown doesn't grow it because "it splits like crazy," he says. (Frank and Keiko Wells of Camarillo sometimes offer a few "Spains" at the Beverly Hills farmers market, and they are indeed scrumptious.)

In buying cherimoyas, look for fruits with lighter-colored skin, which are more mature. They should be well filled-out, with large carpels (shown by the thumbprint-like skin markings), signs that they have been well pollinated and will have a high ratio of pulp to seed. Russeted fruits have been kissed by the sun and are likely to be especially sweet.

If you buy a firm cherimoya, ripen it on the counter until it is aromatic and gives slightly to the touch, like a ripe peach; refrigerate it only once it is ripe, if needed to retard spoilage. Some like to chill cherimoyas just before serving, which makes them more refreshing but less aromatic. Peel, slice, flick out the large, glossy seeds (which are toxic) and feast; alternatively, cut the fruit in half and spoon out the flesh. Brown likes to squeeze on a little mandarin juice to add a pleasing counterpoint of acidity to the cherimoya's sweetness and richness.

food@latimes.com

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