Pears: How to Buy Them, Where to Find Them

The West is a pear-fect place for growing underloved fruit.

4 kinds of pears, image

The West is the perfect place to get to know this complicated fruit.

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People don't understand pears," says Kevin Moffitt of the Pear Bureau Northwest in Milwaukie, Ore. "They don't know how to select a pear that is ripe. If they select an unripe pear, they don't know how to ripen it."

How could anyone not take the time to know and love the pear? Consider the enticements of the most refined varieties: the Seckel's spicy perfume, the Beurré Clairgeau's bright crimson cheek, and the White Doyenné's mild, melting flesh. It's downright pomological eroticism.

Sure, the archrival apple flaunts its all-American appeal, but pears have the shape: plump, curvaceous, womanly. And the sweetness: Pears contain more levulose—the most intense sugar—than any other fruit.

If you are a pear partisan, you have come to the right place. The West is full of protected valleys with warm summers and cool but not freezing winters, where the climate echoes the gentle seasons of old-world pear countries—France and Italy. These idyllic pockets in Oregon, Washington, and California grow 99 percent of the country's commercial pears. They are perfect places to find splendid rural getaways and to get to know this complicated fruit.

But first, some background to enhance your appreciation. Pears have not always been underdogs. For centuries, cloistered European monks nurtured the lushest varieties of the fruit, prized by Renaissance nobility and generations of wealthy connoisseurs. Even in the New World, a gentleman's status was "enhanced by the size and taste of his produce," notes The Great Book of Pears. More evidence of pear prestige: The partridge in a pear tree of Christmas carol fame is no mere housewarming gift; the bird connotes sexual desire and the pear is a phallic symbol. (Remember this the next time you send someone holiday pears from the mail-order company Harry and David.)

Pear fans can find a robust selection at most good produce markets. The classic Bartlett debuts in July. The indulgent Comice, the honey-flavored Seckel, and the Winter Nélis (good for cooking) appear in August. The golden Bosc and freckly Forelle ripen in September; the dominant Anjou arrives in October. You'll also find crisp, sweet Asian pears picked from August to October. Asians are, horticulturally, true pears, but their crunch defies the criterion put forth by Edward Bunyard in his fruit-lover's bible, Anatomy of Dessert: "A pear should have such a texture as leads to silent consumption."

C. Todd Kennedy, author of a pear essay in the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, expands on this assertion: "Most Americans are unaware that pears are supposed to be eaten when they're melting. They think pears are just a dry, tasteless, odd-shaped version of an apple. A pear is not suited for the dominant culture, where people just want to buy and crunch."

Still, there is reason for hope. Despite mis-apprehensions, people are gradually starting to eat a few more pears.

On average, an American consumes 3.5 pounds per year—versus 2.5 pounds in 1970. But, estimates the Pear Bureau's Moffitt, "Eighty percent of consumption comes from 20 percent of consumers."

To raise pear awareness, Moffitt has put his faith in a slogan: Check the neck. It's a handy, rhyming reminder of how to tell when a pear is prime. They ripen from the inside out, so if a pear is soft to the touch around the stem, it should be luscious and ready. Most likely, you will not find the elusive tender-necked pear at the market. You need to bring it home and watch it like a treasured pet.

Whatever you do, warns food writer and photographer David Karp, don't go away for the weekend. "That rock-hard pear will hit its peak and turn sleepy, a British term for too soft to eat," he says.

Once ripe, a pear may be preserved in the refrigerator for two or three days—an option unavailable to Ralph Waldo Emerson when he wrote, "There are only 10 minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat." If you miss the fleeting window of pear-fection, too-soft fruit can add velvety sweetness to sauces, smoothies, and even mashed potatoes. After all, when you truly love the pear, it's OK to be a little mushy.

Ready to feast on the West's best pears? A good spot to start is Hood River, Ore., a charming Columbia River Gorge town (heaven for windsurfers) surrounded by opportunities for scenic drives with stops to taste at roadside stands. Come in April to see Mount Hood's snowy dome presiding over a sea of blossoming orchards. In summer, peek at baby pears maturing inside glass bottles while still on the branch at McCurdy Farms (call to arrange a visit: 541-386-1628). Portland's Clear Creek Distillery (503-248-9470) harvests the bottled fruit for its trademark pear-in-the-bottle eau-de-vie.

Hood River is full of cooks who excel at pear promotion. At Stonehenge Gardens restaurant, the menu includes pear and melon soup with pear croutons; Pasquale's serves pear empanadas; and Cooper Spur Mountain Resort features pork with pears and figs. This year's Harvest Hood River event, September 20 and 21 (541-386-7697), hosts an artisan food festival, tours of local orchards, and a hayride.

Oregon's Rogue Valley is home to Harry and David (877-322-8000,www.harryanddavid.com), world renowned for its Royal Riviera (known elsewhere as Comice). A $5 tour of the Medford headquarters offers a look at the careful engineering involved in packing and shipping pears "so big and juicy, you eat them with a spoon."

A lovely time to visit is during the Medford Pear Blossom Festival, next April 10 (541-734-7327), with food booths, a parade, and a pageant.

If you ever feel like kicking off pear season, come to California's Sacramento Delta in July for the Bartlett harvest. The rollicking Delta Pear Fair in Courtland, next July 25 (916-775-2000), fills a town park with booths touting such delights as pear sausage, pear fritters, and pear pie. There's also a biggest-pear contest and display of outrageously rotund specimens—ideal snacks for Paul Bunyan.

You might visit Lake County to enjoy boating or fishing on Clear Lake, but why not come to savor pears? Kelseyville, self-proclaimed Pear Capital of the World, has its own pear celebration, September 27 this year (707-279-9022), replete with a dessert contest (pear custard pie, pear lemon bars), a parade, a pear-packing competition, and, at the Clear Lake Riviera Restaurant (707-277-7575) on September 25, a $55, five-course pearmaker dinner (reservations required). This year's menu includes pear and portobello bruschetta, squash and pear bisque, mahimahi with pear salsa, and lamb chops with poached pears.

Keep rolling over to Mendocino County—home to pear-nurturing valleys. Here, you can sample farmers' market fruit at Fort Bragg on Wednesday, Willits on Thursday, Mendocino on Friday, and Ukiah on Tuesday and Saturday. In July and August, Ukiah's Gotfruit.com, aka the Thomas family (707-462-4716), offers a tour of its pear-packing house filled at peak production with 700 employees.

Other pear celebrations include UC-Santa Cruz's Harvest Festival (831-459-3240) on campus October 11, with local orchard tours, expert advice, and tastings; and Contra Costa County's Moraga Pear Festival (925-631-6842) September 13, with crafts, food booths, and a pear recipe contest. Those who long to taste the rarest of pears ought to attend the Fall Festival October 4 at the historic Filoli estate (650-364-8300) in Woodside, Calif., 30 miles south of San Francisco. Tour the amazing orchards of heirloom fruit trees, some from the original planting in 1919. Volunteers offer up fresh slices of heavenly pears: The Jargonelle is thought to date to ancient Rome. The Beurré Superfin tastes like a flower.

Photography by Bruce Forster/Viewfinders

This article was first published in September 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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