It looks like a cross between an artichoke and a hand grenade. Mark Twain called it "deliciousness itself."

Meet the cherimoya (pronounced chair-i-MOI-ya), an exotic fruit that is being touted as the trendy item of the year at the Produce Marketing Association's convention here this weekend. And chances are good that cherimoya will be appearing in the produce section at the corner grocery since the four-day fresh produce show is purported to be the industry's largest trade exhibition.

The cherimoya being shown at the Sheraton-Washington Hotel came from southern California, where they've grown for over 100 years, to appear alongside the Idaho potatoes, jelly beans, French fries and other fruits and vegetables being displayed in about 400 booths. But it was the cherimoya, which one person said "tastes like a pina colada without the rum," that was getting a good bit of the attention.

"It's the kiwi fruit of the year," said Karen Caplan of Los Angeles-based Frieda of California, a wholesale distributor of unusual produce. She was referring to the the fuzzy brown New Zealand kiwi that suddenly became trendy about two years ago.

"The cherimoya will enjoy more popularity and national distribution than ever before," Caplan said yesterday. "Food editors everywhere are writing about it. More people are growing it. The crop size has doubled from last year."

Over 250,000 of the cherimoyas, which retail for about $4 to $5 a pound, are expected to be grown this year, added Caplan, whose mother, Frieda, is considered by many to be the queen of specialty produce. The family business, she said, has distributed more than 200 kinds of unusual fruits and vegetables.

On the vegetable side, some of the hottest trends at the produce show included a yellow potato that is said to be cherished by calorie counters because they look and taste already buttered. Miniature vegetables, including baby carrots and baby scallopini squash apparently are still growing in popularity among the nouvelle cuisine crowd.

The baby bok choy is really adorable," Caplan said.

The aspiring gourmand can look out for another exotic fruit being promoted at the show: the carambola, or the Florida star fruit. The yellow carambola (pronounced ka-ram-BOWL-uh) has a waxy exterior and creates a star shape when cut into cross sections.

A longtime favorite in southern China, the carambola was introduced into Florida from Hawaii more than 75 years ago, wholesalers said.

"We're expecting to grow as many as 130,000 carambolas this year in southern Florida," Schaefer said. The carambolas might cost about $2 to $3.50 a pound, or 2 or 3 for a $1, depending on the size of the fruit.

The cherimoya also is relatively expensive, mainly because it isn't pollinated by nature. This requires the farmer to climb up the individual trees and pollinate each fruit by hand.

"The bees just don't do the job," explained Bill Schaefer of J.R. Brooks & Son Inc, a Florida wholesale produce distributor who was displaying cherimoya at the show.

Exotic crops are offering a taste of the future, according to Schaefer, although this reasoning doesn't speak to the belief that the cherimoya was a favorite food of the Incas and is said to have grown in the highlands of Peru and Ecuador for centuries.

"The consumer trend in this market is toward new, exotic and exciting things," Schaefer explained. "This is really an offshoot of the drive toward fresh produce."

Along with daffodils, guacamole and Asian pears, the produce show can even claim its own computerized information service. The "ProNet" computer network promises to offer subscribers 24-hour instant access to late industry news, commodity availability, pricing information and analysis, and weather forecasts and updates, according to Jan Kessinger, a spokesman for the Kansas-based company.

Predictably, subscribing to the Pronet service is not cheap. But if computerization makes sense in any industry, it might be one that involves food and its freshness.

"We're dealing with perishable products in this industry," Kessinger explained. "The quicker producer operators get the information, the better."

The association's convention continues through Wednesday.