Pears, like apples, are uninteresting if all you can taste is sweetness. A good balance of sweetness, acidity and musk is essential to reveal the pear’s gentle flavours. It was largely thanks to the passion for fruit and vegetables of Louis XIV of France that Pears reached their high level of appreciation. Royal patronage oversaw pear production change from difficult-to-manage open orchards to tamed espaliered trees. These allowed for easier and effective control of shelter, warmth, hybridisation and harvesting. A need to please a King created a passion for pears.
Although the pear tree, Pyrus communis, is not native to our islands, it has been grown in the UK since at least the 10th century. Some say they arrived, even earlier, with the Romans. Pear trees can still be found growing wild in hedgerows. Improved pear cultivars were brought into the UK from France and Belgium and new varieties then began to be developed here too. The trees are particularly long-lived and can survive for up to 250 years. By the 17th century we were grafting pear tree cuttings onto quince rootstock, making it easier to grow pears in our typically wet spring climate.
Records show varieties of pear under cultivation in the UK increased from 64 in 1640 to 622 by 1826. Today the National Fruit Collection website lists 530 varieties but very few are under commercial cultivation. Concorde and Conference, and to a lesser extent Williams’ Bon Chretien (called Bartlett in the USA), make up most of the UK’s commercial crop. The last of these is still known in Berkshire, where it originated, as ‘Stair’s Pear’ in acknowledgment of its original cultivator John Stair, a local schoolmaster, rather than Mr Williams and Mr Bartlett who introduced it to a wider audience and, modestly, named it after themselves. There’s little chance of finding red-skinned Laxton’s Early Market or russet-skinned Mrs Seden for our customers now, but they could well still be growing in someone’s back garden.
Here at Puntarelle & Co we source English-grown Pears through the autumn months. Varieties include russet-skinned, silky-textured Beurre Hardy and Triumph of Vienna - an old French variety with red flush, russet-patched skin and smooth, juicy white flesh. We also buy Italian ones like Abate Fetel and buttery, melting, Doyenne du Comice from France. Beurre Bosc and Beurre d’Anjou are late varieties that are relatively good keepers so we tend to get this type into the New Year.
Pears need to be picked when firm then ripened off the tree, but they store far less well than apples. Once bought, keep at room temperature until the fruit gives very slightly around the stem, indicating ripeness. Pears love chocolate and spices like cinnamon and vanilla, and partner well with cheese, particularly a blue like English Stilton or Stichelton, a French Roquefort or Italian Gorgonzola.
What to do with them: assemble a salad of chicory leaves, sliced pear, blue cheese, walnuts or toasted hazelnuts dressed with a vinaigrette; slice and bake pears in a pastry tart or galette; pickle the sliced fruits with sugar, white wine vinegar, cloves, allspice and nutmeg to serve with roast ham or pork; peel and poach them whole in red or white wine with a little sugar; bake halved, cored pears in a little marsala or maple syrup; use in an ‘upside-down’ cake; or instead of apples for a tarte tatin; then, of course, there is the classic dessert Poire belle Helene – pears, chocolate and ice cream.