Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Problem with Pears

We all know what they are, yet pears are as old as anything in our collective cultures and remain a very unappreciated fruit--except by a dedicated few. As I begin a journey to where my pomological eye will be turned back again to stone fruit, and for the first time towards pears, I have begun to truly appreciate the unappreciated pear. More importantly, I have started to ask, Why? So why is it that the pear is such a misunderstood fruit? Is it geography? Culture? Religion? Or do they just taste bad? In my next few blogs, I will explore several pear quality-related topics in hopes of coming to some conclusion to my query of, What is the Problem with Pears?

Let me first clear the table by stating that pears are one of the, if not the, most satisfying fruits on the planet. It is true, they are more difficult to deal with in terms of storage, ripening, and determining when that pear is ready to eat. Too soft and they taste like mush; too hard and they have no aroma or mouth-feel; just right and you are in heaven.

The pear has been around for a long, long time; some even believe it was the pear, and not the apple, that was the fruit in the Garden of Eden. Horticulturally speaking, the pear is just about as difficult (or easy) to grow as any other tree fruit. And were it not for its susceptibility to fireblight (a bacterial disease) its production, domestically at least, would still be pretty strong. But what was the journey the pear traveled to get to where it is today?

The first written evidence of pears, was in Homer's Odyssey in the 6th century BCE: "Therein grow trees, tall and luxuriant, pears and pomegranates and apple-trees with their bright fruit, and sweet figs, and luxuriant olives. Of these the fruit perishes not nor fails in winter or in summer, but lasts throughout the year."

From Wikipedia: The genus is thought to have originated in present-day western China in the foothills of the Tian Shan, a mountain range of Central Asia, and to have spread to the north and south along mountain chains, evolving into a diverse group of over 20 widely recognized primary species. The enormous number of varieties of the cultivated European pear are without doubt derived from one or two wild subspecies, widely distributed throughout Europe, and sometimes forming part of the natural vegetation of the forests. In England, where an ancient pear tree gave its name to Pirio (Perry Barr, a district of Birmingham) in Domesday, the pear is sometimes considered wild; there is always the doubt that it may not really be so, but the produce of some seed of a cultivated tree deposited by birds or otherwise, which has germinated as a wild-form spine-bearing tree. Court accounts of Henry III of England record pears shipped from Rochelle and presented to the King by the Sheriffs of London. The French names of pears grown in English medieval gardens suggests that their reputation, at the least, was French; a favored variety in the accounts was named for Saint Rule or Regul', bishop of Senlis.

The records of pear culture (the growing of..) go back nearly 3000 years, including a famous book written by Chia Shi-Yi in the 6th century that chronicles pear culture for the previous 1500 years. For the past 3000+ years, pears have been considered a delicacy for the wealthy along with the peach and the apricot. And yet today, even though they hold a prominent place in global cultures and have been considered a culinary treasure, their production worldwide has dropped off, as well as their consumption in favor of the numerous other fruits.

I believe, however, that the pear is making a comeback (or will, in any case) as our eating habits become more European in the new tradition of the Slow Food movement. As our eating habits shift more to smaller portions of higher quality, provincial, and artisanal foods, we will once again rediscover the beauty of the pear. As we discover, rediscover, and appreciate the icons of culinary cultures, pears will once again appear in fruit baskets everywhere.

Here at Frog Hollow Farm, we grow both European and Asian pears. Our most provincial and best tasting is the Warren pear--truly a culinarian's delight. We also grow Golden Russet, Taylor's Gold, and numerous Asian types collectively known as nashi. As Homer wrote in the Odyssey, "These were the splendid gifts of the gods in the palace of Alcinous," so they shall be once again.

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