Pear trees are very promiscuous; they cross-pollinate very easily. That’s why there’s close to five thousand varieties being grown. But no panic: there’s no test on this tomorrow and besides, you’re lucky if there’s even ten that make it to your store shelves on a regular basis.
While most people like the fragrance and taste of pears, many won’t eat them. Most will give just about the same reason: they dislike the mealy, gritty texture. This exasperates pear lovers, who will point out that they’re pears, after all, not bananas. While pear producers must appreciate this spirited defence, it doesn’t actually help them if the legions of pear-dislikers keep on walking by.
Producers call the grittiness “stone cells.” It’s not entirely understood what causes the stone cells, but they may be caused by lignin and cellulose in the fruit. Producers have been trying for some time now to breed out this grittiness. Still, despite decades of selective breeding, trees will occasionally get hit by what is called “stony pit virus” and revert to producing gritty fruit: the condition can’t be prevented, and the tree must be destroyed.
What has been discovered, however, is that pears harvested before they ripen on the tree tend not to get as mealy and gritty. And, in a happy coincidence, Pears survive shipping to stores much better if they are hard and unripe. So, that’s why the Pears you buy at stores need to be taken home and ripened.
Many people are still leery of biting into a pear, despite the early-picking precaution. Their mouth still remembers vividly that off-putting sensation of the time they had a mealy pear. And while they haven’t made an active decision to hate them, or avoid them, they just don’t put them in their grocery basket. Asian pears, now still yet a novelty in North American and UK grocery stores, may be the salvation for the pear market, as they never go gritty.
Pears have never been quite as popular as apples, both because of their texture, and because they don’t store as well as apples — they have a far shorter shelf life.
To tell if a pear is ripe, try pushing the stem in a little bit. If it looks like it will start to go in easily, then the pear is ripe. Pears ripen from the inside out.
The organic compound propyl acetate (aka propyl ethanoate) has a pleasant, pear-like aroma and flavour upon dilution, and may be used as a flavouring to add pear notes to mixtures (and fragrances.)
You can eat fresh pears with the skin on; wash first. If you slice a pear for use in a recipe, dip in water with a little lemon juice or it will go brown faster than you can say Jack Robinson.
When you are cooking with pears, aim to use fruit that is still firm so it won’t fall apart on you during cooking. Always remove the skin for cooking, as it just goes tough and dark when cooked.
Some pears are meant to be cooking pears (as all pears originally were), and will be mealy if not cooked.
2 medium pears = 1 cup sliced
3 to 4 medium European pears = 2 cups sliced = 1 pound = 450g
2 large Asian pears = 2 cups sliced = 1 pound Asian pears
1 x 16 oz (450g) tin of pear halves contains anywhere from 6 to 10 halves
2 halves of canned, drained pears = 3 ½ oz = 100g
½ cup of drained pear pieces or quarters = 3 ½ oz = 100g
1 pear = 5 ½ oz = 150g
After being picked unripened from the tree, a pear will need anywhere from 5 to 10 days at room temperature to ripen. You can delay this for up to 3 weeks by refrigerating them. When you want to ripen them, set them out at room temperature. They will ripen faster in a paper bag (but when’s the last time you saw a paper bag?) Storing them next to a banana will also speed up the ripening process. Once ripened, you can store for up to 5 days back in the fridge, which slows the ripening back down.
Pears appear to have originated about 4,000 years ago in Asia, and slowly made their way westward across Asia. There is evidence that primitive man in Greece gathered Wild Pears. Pears appear in Homer’s Odyssey. Pears were a common fruit for the Romans. Until the 1500s, pears were always hard, and so always cooked, and not eaten raw. It was in the 1600s and 1700s that European gardeners experimented with cross-breeding to produce softer pears that could be eaten out of hand as fresh fruit. Most of the pear varieties we have now come from this stock developed in France.
Literature & Lore
Pear trees, along with Walnut trees, were assumed to be a favourite gathering place for witches at night.
“Outside the gate of the outer court there is a large garden of about four acres with a wall all round it. It is full of beautiful trees: Pears, pomegranates, and the most delicious apples.” — what Ulysses saw, on entering Queen Arete’s household.
“Pears preserved: Take Pears that are found, and newly gathered from the Tree, indifferent ripe, then lay in the bottom of an Earthen-pot some dried Vine-leaves, and so make a lay of Pears and leaves till you have filled the pot, laying between each lay some sliced Ginger, then pour in as much old Wine as the pot will hold, laying some heavy thing on the Pears that they may not swim.” — Hannah Woolley. The Gentlewomans Companion. London. 1673.
“Be It Resolved by the Legislative Assembly of the State of Oregon: That the pear (Pyrus communis) is the official fruit of the State of Oregon.” —18 April 2005. House Joint Resolution No. 8. Retrieved November 2008 from http://www.netstate.com/states/symb/fruit/or_pear.htm
You will find that many European Pears actually have full, two-parter “pedigree-like” names that you come across from time to time, even though nowadays we prefer to use just one name in referring to them. The European convention for naming Pears used to be that the Pear got a “first name and a last name”, with the first name attempting to describe something distinguishing about the fruit, and the “last name” referring to where it originated or who developed it.
Jackson, John E. The Biology of Apples and Pears. Cambridge University Press. July 2003.