Cultivated since before the time of the Greeks, there are now over 5,000 varieties of pears. Three common types of pears are grown throughout the U.S.–the “Common” or European pear (pyrus communis), the Oriental pear (pyrus serotina), and the Asian pear (pyrus pyrifolia). Throughout the U.S. we find Asian varieties called 20th Century, Shinseiki, Korean Giant, Shinko, Chojuro, Niitaka and European varieties such as Bartlett, Bosc, D’Anjou, Seckel, Magness, Maxine, Moonglow, Comice. US production comes from states in the Northwest, plus New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and California. Imports come from South America, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. The European category tends to have a buttery smooth and sweet flavor; Asian varieties tend to be crisp and depending on the particular variety can range in flavor from mild to tart to all types in between.
Originally grown in Russia’s Caucasus Mountains, pears spread over time to locales as diverse as China, Chile, South Africa, France, Australia, and the United States. By the Dark Ages, the fruit had become a delicacy mainly reserved for aristocrats and clergy. According to the The Great Book of Pears the Rousselet de Reims was Louis XIV’s favored variety and the court at Versailles delighted in pears.
According to Whole Health MD, Bartlett pears (called Williams outside of the U.S.) comprise 65% of all U.S. commercial production. The Bartlett pear came into existence in Berkshire, England in the 17th century, and pear seedlings came to America with the early colonists. Pears were later brought west in the California Gold Rush.
Bartletts are a summer occurrence with Anjou readily available during the winter. According to a Aug/Sept 2002 issue of Mother Earth News, “Almost all pears sold in grocery stores today are heirlooms, with their origins in 15th- through. 19th-century England, France and Germany. Bartlett, Comice, Bosc, Seckel and Anjou are still popular because they have terrific flavor and melting flesh. A buttery feel on the tongue and yielding tissue combine to create this sensation.
Determining ripeness can be a tricky thing. Bosc, Anjou and Comice pears don’t change color when ripe. Bartletts turn from green to yellow to announce its readiness. The Pear Bureau Northwest suggests that you apply gentle thumb pressure near the base of the stem. If it gives slightly, it’s ready to eat. If you’re not ready to eat that pear, put it in the refrigerator. If it isn’t ripe, leave at room temperature checking on it frequently. The fruit will also exude a fragrance when ripe. Pears are available year-round but best from September through February.
Brown-skinned Bosc pears are terrific for roasting due to their low moisture content. The end result is a pear that reduces and caramelizes in its juices. Asian pears also cook well, retaining their crunchy fresh texture when you cook them. There are many ways to serve a pear from drinks, dinner and dessert.
One of my favorite salads is a combination of spinach, sliced pear, blue cheese and toasted walnuts. The subtle sweetness of the pear contrasts perfect with the sharp tang of the blue cheese. However, the pear with young pecorino, black walnuts and honey I had in the hills south of Sienna–a dish so straightforward and too simple s to stand as strong as it does in my mind.
New York’s Craft serves up a ‘Craft Cocktail’—freshly diced pear macerated in Belle de Brillet, a blend of Brillet Cognac and the essence of Williams pears (Poires Williams) grown in the Alsace region of France. Twenty-two pears go into the making of each bottle.
One of my favorite jellies is Napa Valley’s A Perfect Pear’s Cinnamon Pear Jelly. A family recipe the jelly is made with Bartlett pears and has a note of cinnamon. Other products from this specialty food producer include a pear balsamic vinegar and a pear chipolte grill sauce. Pears and cheese are good companions.
Caprial Pence recommends pairing Comice, a creamy-textured, very sweet pear, with Stilton cheese and ruby port; the mellow and juicy Anjou with a soft mild goat cheese and Sauvignon Blanc; and Bosc, a hard, almost crispy pear, with aged white cheddar and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The traditional pear dessert Poires Belle Helene, pears poached in vanilla syrup served over vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, made its first appearance in Paris restaurants in 1865. Created by famed chef Escoffier to honor Hélène, the Queen of Sparta, the principal personnage in an Offenbach opera, La Belle Hélène it puts the pear on a stage. The essence of the recipe below is Nigella Lawson’s. I’ve doctored a few things over time and modified the recipe.
Poires Belle Helene
Yield: 4 Exerpted from How To Eat by Nigella Lawson
4 Bosc pears
juice of one lemon
1 1/4 cups water
1 tspn vanilla
8 oz. bittersweet dark chocolate (Valrhona)
½ cups strong black coffee
½ cups sugar
½ cup heavy cream
High quality vanilla ice cream
For the pears
Peel, halve and core the pears (leave stem intact) and sprinkle with the lemon juice to prevent discoloring. In a 11” wide shallow skillet (in which the pears will fit in one layer — otherwise cook them in batches) put water, the sugar and vanilla. Bring to the boil; stirring every now and again to make sure the sugar dissolves. Lower heat slightly and simmer for 5 minutes. Put the pears into the liquid, cut side down, and raise the heat again so that the syrup boils up and the pears are covered by it. You may need to spoon the syrup over. After half a minute or so, lower the heat, then cover the pan and simmer for 10 minutes, turn the pears, cover the pan again and simmer for another 10 minutes. Carry on until pears are cooked and translucent: they should feel tender (but not soggy) when pierced. They may need more or less cooking time: it all depends on the pears themselves. Take off the heat, keep covered and leave pears in poaching liquid to cool.
For the chocolate sauce
Place the chocolate, broken up into small pieces, in a thick-bottomed pan with the coffee and sugar and melt over a low heat, stirring occasionally. Then pour in the cream, still stirring, and when it is very hot pour into a warmed sauceboat or a bowl with a ladle.
To serve, arrange pears cut side down on a big flat plate and pour some poaching syrup over the fruit. Any remaining syrup will keep in the fridge or freezer and can be used to pour over apples or other fruit when making pies or crumbles. Serve a few small scoops of ice and a scoop of chocolate sauce. Nigella also calls for crystallized violets.