In California, there’s a pear tree more than 200 years old that was planted by Franciscan monks in 1810. Pear trees have exceedingly long lives, which is why the Chinese associate pears with immortality. Pears have been part of human life for so long it’s unclear where they originate, but it’s this long relationship that created the many flavors and textures of pears we have today – from the buttery ambrosia of Concorde to the firm nuttiness of a Bosc to the crispy acid sweetness of Harrow Crisp.
A recent study suggests that eating whole pears, including the skin, may control blood glucose levels so effectively that pre-diabetic people don’t need medication (the pears in the study were Bartlett and Starkrimson). Pears have a nutritional profile similar to apples, and like apples, pears with dark red pigmentation in the skin are higher in anthocyanins, quercetin, and other inflammation-reducing antioxidants. Because each pear has a slightly different chemical make-up, the USDA Nutrition Data gives individual nutritional profiles for Bartlett, Bosc, Red Anjou and Green Anjou.
The earliest written account of people growing pears is in Homer’s The Odyssey (9th century B.C.) which includes the pear in a list of “gifts from the gods” that grew in the garden of the King of the Phaeacians.
By Roman times, more than 35 varieties of pears were known and documented, as compared to only 3 varieties of apples. Pears were stewed, brewed into sweet wines and ciders, and baked into a sweet Pear Patina that is heralded as the oldest surviving recipe.
The person often credited with bringing these Roman pears to France was the great empire builder Charlemagne, who was also fond of pears. The ninth century Capitularies, or “lists of laws” include comments on pear cultivation in the king’s orchards and instructions for planting different types of pears for different intended uses.
Through the medieval age into the renaissance, pears became a symbol of beauty, delicacy, and elitism. No still life painting was complete without a golden, long-necked Abate Fetel or Bosc, or the dowdy, egg-shaped d’Anjou. Pears were collector’s items for the rich and distinguished, like Tuscony’s Grand Duke Cosimo II (1590-1621) who served 209 varieties of pears for dinner.
Start with the 9 varieties at Steve and Dan’s Fresh Fruit Stand for your own high-society functions.
There are three secrets to smooth, juicy pears that aren’t mealy.
The first is not to ripen them on the tree. Pears have small deposits of lignin and cellulose distributed throughout the flesh that give poor quality pears grittiness like the fruit has been rolled in sand. Picking pears before fully ripe and allowing them to ripen off the tree in a cool, dark space, greatly improves the fruit’s texture.
The second secret is that pears rarely change color as they ripen, meaning there are no visual cues for when a pear is ripe. The exception is Bartlett, which changes from green to yellow as it ripens. A pear is ripe when it smells sweet and is slightly soft around the stem.
The third secret is that the body of the pear should not feel soft – only the area around the stem. “Check the neck,” is a good way to remember this. Pears ripen from the inside out, so by the time the exterior feels soft most of the pear will be mealy and overripe.
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