The following is an excerpt from Whole Foods Companion: A Guide for Adventurous Cooks, Curious Shoppers, and Lovers of Natural Foods by Dianne Onstad. It has been adapted for the Web.
There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Pyrus is the classical Latin name for the pear tree, while communis means “common, general, or gregarious.” The English word pear derives from the Latin term.
The pear tree seems to have originated in western Asia around the Caspian Sea. Some pears are the distinctive pear shape, while others are elongated, and still others are round. The Romans introduced this fruit into Europe. More than five thousand varieties can now be listed, some spread throughout the world, others found in only one country or even limited to a small locality. In 1850, pears were so popular in France that it was the fashion among the elite to see who could raise the best specimen, and the fruit was celebrated in song and verse. In the United States the pear is almost as much a national favorite as the apple, to which it is related—both are members of the rose family and pome fruits (those with a distinct seeded core). Pear trees were brought to North America by early colonists, who used cuttings from European stock, and the fruit was introduced into California by Franciscan monks, who planted them in mission gardens. Today 95 percent of American-produced commercial pears are grown in Washington, Oregon, and California. Unlike most tree fruits, pears are best ripened off the tree; when tree-ripened, they develop little grit cells, or stones, in the flesh. Separated from the tree, this process cannot take place, and they ripen evenly and smoothly, with a creamy texture.
Most pears are yellow and have brown or reddish overtones to them, depending on their variety. Select firm, unblemished fruit. They are fully ripe when they give to gentle pressure. Since pears ripen from the core outward, be careful not to let them soften too much, as they will turn to mush. Avoid those that are bruised, have rough scaly areas, or have soft flesh near the stem. Let pears ripen at home either on the counter or in a brown paper bag. Never store a pear sealed in plastic. Without freely circulating oxygen, the core will turn brown and brown spots will develop under the skin. When fully ripe and soft, pears should be stored in the refrigerator and used within a couple of days.
Pears are elegantly seductive. Sweet, juicy, wonderfully textured, and highly nutritious, they have the most subtle taste of all orchard fruit and leave the palate delightfully fresh and clean. They are probably the easiest fruit to identify by their shape: the small stem end gradually broadens to a plump blossom end like a bell. Properly ripened, pears are so tender they were once called the “butter fruit.” They can be used in all the same ways as apples, including for cider (called “perry”). Fresh pears make wonderful companions for wine, bread, and a mixture of sharp cheeses. Hollowed pear halves make attractive boats for various fillings.
pH 3.50–4.60. Pears are extremely rich in alkaline elements, have a strong diuretic action, are helpful for constipation and poor digestion, and are valuable as general cleansers of the system. Their iodine content helps to keep the thyroid functioning properly and the metabolism balanced. Pears are an excellent source of water-soluble fibers, including pectin. In fact, pears are actually higher in pectin than apples. Pectin reduces serum cholesterol and cleanses the body of environmental and radioactive toxins. The regular consumption of pears is believed to result in a pure complexion and shiny hair. Dried pears are a good energy producer in the wintertime as well as a delicious snack year-round.
Anjou (Beurre d’Anjou) are the most abundant winter variety of pear. Originating in France or Belgium in the nineteenth century, they are a round, yellowish-green pear that tapers bluntly to the stem end, with a thick, barely noticeable neck and no waistline. Belonging to the bergamot group of pears, their skin remains green but develops a definite glow when ripe; they should be eaten only when they yield to gentle pressure. Although the skin is not tough, it is not as sweet as the meat and has a slightly grainy texture. The flesh is spicy-sweet and juicy with a firm texture. Anjous are a wonderful dessert pear; their firm texture makes them the best pear for cooking and baking, since they never seem to lose their shape. Available from October through May.
Bartletts were first raised in 1770 in Berkshire, England, by a schoolmaster named John Stair. Arriving in London, this variety of pear was called Williams after Mr. Williams of Middlesex, who distributed them. In 1798 or 1799, it was brought to the United States and planted in Dorchester, Massachusetts, under the name of Williams’ Bon Chretien. Enoch Bartlett acquired the estate in 1817 and, not knowing the true name of the pear, distributed it under his own name. In other parts of the world it is still known as Williams or Williams’ Bon Chretien. The Bartlett is a true pyriform pear, with a definite waistline and a long stem; it is a large, golden-yellow summer pear, bell-shaped, with smooth, clear skin, often blushed with red. It has white, finely grained flesh that is juicy and delicious. The yellow variety ripens very quickly once picked and bruises easily (even loud noises are said to hurt them); they are best eaten while still flecked with green. The most common variety grown today, Bartletts comprise more than 65 percent of commercial production. They are excellent canners and dessert fruit but are too fragile for lunch bags and picnic baskets. Available July through December.
Bosc (Beurre Bosc) are a member of the conical pear family and are long, tapered, and waistless. They are generally medium-sized, dark yellow, with rough brown skins and long, narrow necks. When properly ripened, they become a dark russet color and respond to gentle pressure. The meat is firm and almost crunchy, cream-colored, very juicy, and smooth-textured. The larger ones usually have the best flavor and sweetness. An excellent pear for eating out of hand, the Bosc holds up well in lunch pails, picnic baskets, and fruit bowls; it is also wonderful baked, broiled, poached, or preserved. Available from October through May.
Clapp pears are hardly ever shipped but are frequently available at roadside stands and farmer’s markets. The green Clapp pear has a thinner skin than most, while the red Clapp has a heavier skin and a slightly firmer texture. Of medium size, they have very white flesh, a high sugar content, and plenty of juice.
Comice (Doyenne du Comice)—meaning “best of the show”) pears have the reputation of being the sweetest and most flavorful pears. They have a definite pyriform shape, with a short, wide stem end, a waistline, and a very wide blossom end. Somewhat squat and irregularly formed, they are heavily perfumed, with a heady, musky fragrance. Their color during peak ripeness is a soft green that glows with a golden aura and is sometimes slightly bronzed or flecked. Similar in size to the Anjou, they are distinguished from their cousin by a red blush. Their skin is so thin and the flesh so wet that anything more than a gentle stroke leaves a mark; their creamy smooth flesh literally melts in the mouth. Best when eaten fresh, they are also delectable baked into desserts. Available from October through January.
Packhams (Packham’s Triumph) are mostly imported, although some are grown in California. Coming in primarily medium and large premium sizes, this pear has a definite pear shape, but the wide bottom is irregular, with a deep blossom end. They also have a perfume that adds to their exotic flavor. Very, very juicy and sweet, a Packham pear at its peak (just turning soft gold all over) begs to be taken home. Available from late June to September.
Red Bartletts are a development of Northwestern pear growers and are fast becoming increasingly available. The red skin is heavier than the yellow variety, the pigment resists disease better, and the ripening process is not quite so quick. Three-quarters red, solid at the cone end, and striped below the waist, they are ripe when the yellow area shows slight green and the striped area is still red, not russet or brown.
Seckels are a true American pear, having been discovered as a mutant sometime around the time of the Revolution. They take their name from the man who acquired the land in Delaware where the original tree was discovered. They have hard green skin that turns slightly golden and develops a light red blush when ripe, a spicy aroma, and crisp but sweet flesh. Always very small and frequently only bite-sized, these are a fun fruit for all but make an especially good children’s fruit because of their size. Served fresh, poached, or pickled whole, these eye-catchers are sure to please with their sweet flesh. Available from September through January.