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Thank goodness we live in a place where we can actually buy cherimoyas. Although their season is sporadic from fall to spring, it’s most likely we’ll find them in December through March, so be on the lookout for them.

Because of their scarcity, and because of their incredibly delicious, pure white, melting, juicy, sweet, acidulous, slightly grainy, and very fragrant flesh, the fruit is in great demand. Its flavor is somewhere between a strawberry and a bowl of vanilla custard with hints of lemon, kiwifruit, pineapple, banana, papaya and mango. And it’s lusciously sweet without being cloying. Mark Twain called it “deliciousness itself.”

The only places in the United States where the cherimoya is grown commercially are in southern Florida and the coastal regions and foothills of Southern California — and most of that precious land is taken up by development and state parks. Not only is its range severely limited, it must be hand-pollinated to produce fruit because none of the native pollinators of its home region in the Andean valleys of Ecuador and Peru exist in the United States.

I’ve seen cherimoyas at Andy’s Produce Market in Sebastopol, at the Community Market in Santa Rosa, Oliver’s and at Whole Foods. Once again, we’re in gustatory luck, because very little California cherimoya leaves the state. It’s a soft fruit that doesn’t travel particularly well, and there’s precious little left after we Californians take our share. Some Florida and Mexican cherimoya make their way to large markets in eastern states — but not much. If you do find it, it will be expensive. Community Market typically sells it for $12.99 a pound. That’s a lot for a fruit — but it is such a special treat.

It’s also likely to be organic, whether there’s a USDA organic seal on it or not. No chemicals are registered for use on cherimoya, so that means it’s illegal to use pesticides, herbicides or fungicides on the tree or fruit. Not only that, but according to the California Rare Fruit Growers, cherimoya “appreciates organic amendments to make lusher growth.”

Cherimoya is commonly eaten raw because it is just so good that way. Each of its segments contains an easily removed seed that resembles a big fat black bean. The pulp can also be seeded and pureed and made into ice cream or sorbet, or used to make a cooling fruit drink.

When buying, avoid any with brown spots. They should be slightly firm. Any that are very soft will be overripe with a poor texture. When you get them home, handle them gently, as they are fragile. If they’re still firm, they ripen best at room temperature inside a paper bag. Once ripe, they’ll store for a few days if wrapped in plastic wrap and placed in the fridge.

Or, you can de-seed the flesh and puree it, then divvy it up in an ice cube tray and store the frozen cubes in the freezer — but it won’t be long before you eat them up.

To use, just have at them fresh. Or, you can add the flesh to fruit salads, ices and top desserts with it. The sweet flavor has an affinity for chicken, pork, citrus, yogurt, cinnamon and ginger.

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It almost seems a shame to do anything to a cherimoya except eat its custard-like flesh with a spoon, and yet it makes a fabulous drink. So, go ahead — live a little.

Cherimoya Agua Fresca

Makes 4 servings

3 cups seeded cherimoya flesh (3 ripe cherimoyas)

4 cups spring water

— Raw sugar to taste

Scoop out and de-seed the flesh of the cherimoya, leaving all its integument (tough outer protective layer) behind.

Puree the flesh to a smooth consistency in a blender, adding a bit of the water if necessary, to make it blend. Place the remainder of the four cups of water in a serving pitcher, mix in the cherimoya and taste. Add the sugar, as much as you think it needs, if any.

Stir until the sugar dissolves, or mix the sugar with a little warm water so it dissolves more easily, then refrigerate. Serve with a mint sprig atop each glass.

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This finishes a dinner with true élan. The texture of the cherimoya makes the frozen dessert almost mousse-like.

Cherimoya Sorbet

Makes 3 to 4 servings

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 cup water

3 large ripe cherimoyas to make 3 cups seeded flesh

2 ½ tablespoons fresh-squeezed lime juice

½ teaspoon finely grated lime zest

— Pinch sea salt

In a saucepan, combine 1 cup water and the sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar is entirely dissolved.

Take the pan off the heat and let the sugar syrup cool completely, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, cut the cherimoyas into quarters, scoop out the flesh with a spoon, and discard the seeds.

In a blender or food processor, purée the cherimoya flesh until smooth. Add the lime juice, zest, sugar syrup and pinch of salt and combine. Transfer the sorbet mixture to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely chilled, about 2 hours.

Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. The sorbet will keep, frozen, for up to 1 month.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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