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Pears

Cultivated for nearly four thousand years, pears have been known to man since ancient times. They originated in Asia and spread throughout Europe during the Roman Empire. Until the sixteenth century pears were tough and always eaten cooked, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, gardeners for European noblemen began to crossbreed varieties, competing with each other to get a pear with a soft, buttery flesh. Most of the pears we know today are derived from those cultivars.

Pears are grown throughout the United States and Europe and are now being introduced as commercial crops in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Chile. In the United States, Oregon, Washington, and California produce particularly excellent pears.

This is one fruit you do not want tree-ripened. Pears have a characteristically gritty texture caused by cells in the flesh called stone cells. Although more and more of these have been bred out, all varieties still contain them. Picking pears before the fruit has matured and holding them under controlled conditions prevents the formation of too many stone cells.

Pears are delicate even when they're hard and green, so they're always picked by hand. Most markets don't sell really ripe pears because they bruise so easily, but it's very easy to ripen them at home.

Varieties

Because they crossbred so easily, there are somewhere between four thousand and five thousand cultivated varieties. Eight of those are commonly available to shoppers here.

Anjou Anjou pears are almost always oval, with a very short neck. Immature Anjous are pale green and turn yellowish green as they ripen. They have a very juicy, spicy flesh that's a bit firmer than the Bartlett. Anjous are available from October through May.

Bartlett and Red Bartlett A bell-shaped pear known as Williams in Europe, the Bartlett is probably the most familiar pear to Americans. It has long been prized for canning. Regular Bartletts turn from green to yellow, with a pink blush. The Red Bartlett is a hardier variety that has a bright crimson skin. An unripe Red Bartlett is actually a darker red than a ripe one: as it ripens, it turns from a darker to a lighter, brighter red. The flesh of both is white. I don't think you can taste mush difference between the two. Both have a buttery texture and a mild, sweet flavor. Bartletts are available from August through December.

Bosc Although similar in appearance to the European Conference pear, the Bosc is much juicer and less granular in texture. It is relatively long and slender; of all the pears, it probably has the longest neck. An unripe Bosc has a brown skin that changes to a golden russet, becoming lighter and brighter in color as it ripens. A ripe Bosc can get almost golden yellow, but it will still retain shades of russet. The Bosc has a yellow flesh that's buttery, sweet, and juicy. It has a very long season - August through May.

Clapp The Clapp pear is large, oval, and greenish yellow, with a bit of a red blush. It's a decent pear, but of all the pears, it's the hardest and woodiest. Available in the fall.

Comice A very large, round, short-necked pear, the Comice is my personal favorite. Of all the pears, I think it's the sweetest and most fragrant. Comices have a greenish yellow skin, sometimes with a red blush. Originally a French variety, they have been grown in North America for more than one hundred years. Because they scar very easily, they're sometimes hard to sell here. Ethnic groups buy them, but a lot of Americans just don't like the way they look. With a peak season in November and December, they're one of the best things going around the holiday season. As the demand for them grows, producers are starting to grow more of them, but Comices are still not as commonly available as Bartletts and Anjous, so they're still relatively expensive. Comice pears are available from August to March.

Forelle Another good holiday pear, the Forelle is very small - between a Seckel and an ordinary pear in size - and golden yellow in color, with a bright red blush and characteristic red freckles. Not only is it very sweet and juicy - it's beautiful to look at. An unripe Forelle is green with red specks; as it ripens the green turns to golden yellow. With those red freckles, Forelles are a standout. They have a relatively short season - October to February, peaking in October and November. We still have a good supply during Christmas.

Nelis A winter pear that's small to medium in size, the Nelis has brown freckles over a light green skin that turns golden when ripe. It's fairly round, with almost no neck. The flesh is creamy and sweet raw, and it's also very good for cooking and canning. Nelis are available from October to April, with the height of the season in December and January.

Packham This is a fairly new strain, developed in Australia. It's similar to Bartlett in color and flavor, but it's got a rougher shape. Available all winter from Chile.

Seckel Bite-sized, the Seckel is the smallest of the pears. Named after the Pennsylvania farmer who discovered it on his property, Seckels have a short neck and a dark green skin with a dark red blush. I think they have an excellent flavor. Available from August through January, Seckels take a lot more time to ripen than other pears and will stay hard for months in the refrigerator.

Selecting

Green pears should be free from blemishes. Ripe pears - especially tender varieties like the Comice - are going to show a few scars. Avoid bruised or too-soft fruit, but don't be afraid to bring home pears that are still green. That's the way you're going to find most of them.

Ripening and Storing

Place unripe pears in a bowl or paper bag, leave them at room temperature, and they'll ripen in a few days to a week, depending on how green they are when you buy them.

Most pears show a subtle change in color as they ripen, and some develop a sweet fragrance. You can test a pear for ripeness by applying gentle pressure to the stem end with your thumb - it should yield a bit. You can hold off the ripening process by refrigerating them, and they'll hold for a long time - as long as three to four weeks. A few days before you want to eat them, bring them out to ripen. You can refrigerate a ripe pear too, but at that point it's only going to last a couple days.

Preparing

There are lots of ways to eat pears. They're good with prosciutto. You can use them in any recipe that calls for apples. Use several different varieties, all on the green side, to make a terrific pie. My aunt used to make pear pies just like apple pies, mixing in one or two quinces. You can poach pears and serve them with strawberry sauce for a simple, very pretty dessert that tastes great.

During the holidays, line a basket with napkins, pile up Comices or Forelles or a mix, tuck in sprigs of holly and maybe a few ornaments, and you'll have a pretty centerpiece that's also a good way to ripen the fruit.

Recipes

Christmas Pears with Strawberry Sauce

Strawberry Sauce

Pear Praline Pie

Other recipes from Produce Pete.

   

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