Few fruit specimens have had the adoring love of poets, horticulturists, and kings like the pear. Homer praised the pear as a “gift from the gods.” The 17th century Versailles gardener Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie dutifully developed new varieties, and King Louis XI tended to his Bon Chrétien tree so tenderly that it’s said that it prolonged his life for months. (Alas, he died shortly before its first harvest could properly ripen, and so never got to enjoy its fruit steeped in honey and wine.)
It’s hard to imagine the ordinary pear being such a highly prized delicacy. Half a century ago, pears were more frequently canned than served fresh; in more recent years, fresh pears have become a reliable supermarket staple. Today, domestic canning has slowed down, and many pear growers (California, Oregon, and Washington dominate the fresh-pear industry) have opted for more lucrative crops. But the interest in unusual varieties has never waned.
Breeding new fruit varieties is still an attractive endeavor as supermarket giants vie for the most attractive, flavorful, storage-friendly fruit. But with over 3,000 known pear varieties, why mess with something new? My in-laws’ pear trees produce amazingly complex fruit. They’re shaped like a Bartlett and have distinctive brown russeting and spicy flavor akin to a Bosc. I don’t have a clue what type of pear they are, and I kind of like it that way.
Pears, unlike most other tree fruit, should be harvested mature but unripe. They ripen from the inside out, so pass on a pear that’s already soft to the touch. The Bartlett is the only variety that changes color as it ripens, so the best way to tell if a pear is ready to eat is to gently push on the top near the stem, where it will give slightly to pressure. Pears also signal ripeness with their fragrance, so store them on the counter and enjoy their evolution.
Bartletts are the quintessential fresh-eating pear: classic pear flavor with mouthwatering juiciness. But if they remind you of your canned-fruit youth, try a Comice or d’Anjou. These two pears both have a buttery, rich flavor that pairs great with cheese, pork, and root vegetables. For desserts, many prefer the Bosc for cooking methods such as baking or poaching in wine. Its firm, dense flesh holds up well to heat and absorbs just the right amount of flavors from an alcoholic bath.
In addition to these widely available varieties, try to seek out lesser-known pears at farmers’ markets, farm stands, or even someone’s side yard. Often these smaller, mysterious pears have the most interesting flavor profiles.
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