pears

Hello, I’m Andrea Castillo and this is Seasonal, a newsletter that connects you to the Bay Area food system, one fruit and vegetable at a time. Each post highlights the most interesting aspects of one seasonal fruit or vegetable grown and harvested around the Bay Area. Find me on Instagram at @seasonalbayarea or e-mail me at seasonal@substack.com to share your feedback and suggestions, I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to unsubscribe, click the link at the bottom of this post.

between a rock and a hard place

Think back to a recent memory of eating a pear. Chances are texture may be one of the more salient aspects of that memory. If so, there’s a tiny reason pear texture may stand out for you. Pears are unique in the fruit world because they are one of few fruits with cells in their flesh that are otherwise only found in hard, sometimes inedible parts of plants. These tough cells, known as stone cells, give pears their unique gritty texture. Why cells that are usually reserved for walnut shells, cherry pits, and coconuts decided to set up shop within the pear’s flesh is anyone’s guess. However it happened, stone cells have spawned pear haters and even shaped modern pear growing practices.

Stone cells—or sclerids from the Greek word sklerosis, meaning hardening—grow thick, strong walls. These walls are reinforced by nature’s mortar: lignin. Lignin is abundant in plants and a common rigid component in wood and bark that does not degrade easily, even when chewed. Lignified stone cells form during the early stages of fruit growth. These cells start off as regular-looking cells with one outer wall. But soon their wall construction project goes a little bezerk: stone cells layer wall on top of wall on top of wall, squeezing their own living components to a tiny center. Stone cells eventually insulate themselves so well that nothing can get in or out—fortifying themselves to death.

Dead or alive, however, stone cells remain embedded in pears. Stone cell clusters abound in immature pears and harden their flesh, which could be part of the fruit’s strategy to make itself unpalatable while it is unripe (though there’s no scientific proof that this is so). As pears develop mature seeds, grow larger, and become juicier—sending signals that they’re ready to be eaten—the expansive volume creates more distance between stone cell clusters, transforming the inedible hard pear into a softer, gritty fruit. 

mouthfeel

I could’ve written softer, but gritty fruit. I opted against it because whether that grittiness is good or bad is subject to individual preferences and my feelings about it are… neutral. I notice the grit but I don’t mind that it’s there. Not everyone feels that way, though, and there are some serious pear haters out there. Why? Texture! The internet, being the wonderful repository of information and opinions that it is, has hyper-specific forums for people who abhor pears. It’s like eating sand, they say. Might as well eat chalk. Even Doctor Who hates pears because they’re too squishy and make chins look weird. As a matter of fact, the good doctor’s hatred of pears is a running joke in what is one of the longest-running TV series ever.

Even Asian pears—crisp and apple-like as they are—do not escape eaters’ fury. When curious Americans hybridized Asian and Western pears in the 1920s, a top British pomologist saw the hybrid as an abomination and wanted “…to express the fervent hope that no one will attempt to introduce these execrable fruit into general culture here and so bring disgrace upon the name of the delicious and melting Pear.”

People will die on their pear texture hill!

the road to dethroning the stone cell

Give people’s feelings, opinions, and aversions enough time to gather momentum and they will influence the actions of others. People have had beef with gritty pears since way before internet rants were a thing. Two-hundred and fifty years ago, Europeans decided enough was enough and waged a war against stone cells, ultimately influencing the pear varieties growers chose to cultivate.

For much of history, most pear varieties were crisp and lacked buttery texture. Today, these characteristics are most common in Asian pears, reminiscent of crunchy jicama, and with the added granular feel from stone cells. In the pear world, there are two main groups of pears: Asian and European. Asian pears tend to be round and firm while European pears are round at the bottom, with a slender, tender neck that meets the stem. Both types of pears have been cultivated for thousands of years, the Asian pear much longer than the European kind.

The earliest mention of European pear domestication goes back to the Greeks. The Romans got into pears too. There’s no ancient Roman Reddit, but Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, navy commander, and naturalist, wrote an encyclopedia in which he dedicated an entire chapter to pears, documenting 40 varieties of small, juicy pears cultivated in the Roman Empire in 50AD. He didn’t mention grit once. Right before Pliny’s encyclopedic endeavors, Apicius, an ancient Roman foodie and author of one of the first recorded cookbooks, wrote recipes for cooked pears.

Unlike the time-traveling, pear-hating Doctor Who, Romans loved pears and had no complaints. Did Roman pears have grit? Or did Romans not mind the grit? Unfortunately, we do not know because all 40 varieties Pliny recorded are extinct. Seventeen centuries later, as renaissance Europe became obsessed with the pear-loving ancient Romans, they too fell in love with pears. In the late 17th century, the French began a pear craze, elevating it to the most popular fruit at the time. But as the 18th century ended, the glorified pears were not good enough for a small group of pear enthusiasts and they set off to selectively breed European pears and fundamentally transform their texture. 

The butteriest, juicy European Comice from Star Grocery in Berkeley and the carameley, crisp Asian Hosui from Solano Mushroom farms in Vacaville.

i can’t get no satisfaction

Fed up with the grittiness of the celebrated fruit, Nicolas Hardenport, a Belgian priest and horticulturist, started a quest in 1730 to breed soft, buttery pears that melted on your tongue. To do so, Hardenport had to grow and try all kinds of pears and then select those that happened to have less grit. Unaware of what he was actually doing, Hardenport started the stone cell conquest that continues to this day: to control pear texture, one must breed out stone cells in pears. Hardenport succeeded in breeding a handful of softer pears and one of his compatriots, Jean Baptiste Van Mons, carried on his work in the late 1700s. Similar to Luther Burbank’s obsession with hybridizing plums, Van Mons, a Belgian everything-ist—botanist, chemist, horticulturist, pomologist, physicist—had caught a serious case of pear fever and dedicated his life to growing silky, non-crisp pears.

Pear seeds, like many other fruit seeds, teem with genetic diversity and rarely produce the same type of pear the seed came from. So, to find soft, buttery qualities in the fruit, Van Mons had to plant a large number of seeds, wait, and taste the results. Because grafting would not have helped Van Mons—grafting is how you’d grow more of the exact same existing fruit you already like—he had no other choice but to spin the seed diversity roulette and hope that some planted seeds would happen to express the right genes that randomly result in less stone cells and yield the more delicate pears he was after. 

Van Mons became a prolific breeder and grew 80,000 pear seedlings. His hard work to find the ultimate pear eventually yielded results: from those thousands of seedlings, 40 ended up making the final cut for superior, softer pears. But it took Von Mons 60 years to get there—an incredible effort fueled by a desire to keep his microscopic walled enemies out of his pears. In spite of his 79,960 failures, his dedication did leave a long-lasting legacy. When we eat Beurré (buttery) D’Anjou or Bosc pears today, we’re enjoying grafted replicas of Von Mons’ 200-year-old creations. Who knew that in addition to chocolate, beer, and fries, we could also add uniquely soft pears to the list of foods to thank Belgium for!

Bosc, D’Anjou, and the Bartlett pear, originally from England, are the most common pears in the United States—all of which are modern buttery inventions. Pears are not native to the Americas and were introduced by the early British and French colonists to the East Coast and the Gold Rushers brought pear trees to California in 1849. Although California is one of the largest pear growers in the country, commercial pears grow best in only a handful of Golden State counties: Lake, Mendocino, and Sacramento. Pears are generally fond of cooler climates and Northern California is the southern limit of their range. Anything south of the Bay Area is too warm and too friendly to heat-loving bacteria, known as fire blight, that enjoy eviscerating pear trees.

born in the USA

But there’s one rare and coveted pear variety that does not succumb easily to fire blight, making it attractive to local Bay Area farms like Frog Hollow and The Peach Jamboree. This particular pear doesn’t mind a cranked-up thermostat and hails from Mississippi, of all places. Meet the Warren pear.

To our knowledge, Warren pears have only been around for 50 years. By happenstance, Thomas Warren, an amateur fruit grower, stumbled upon his namesake pear at a Mississippi State University’s experimental orchard in 1976. Thomas Warren couldn’t believe his luck: the Warren pear tree fought off fire blight like a champ, the delicious fruit was at least triple the size of the Seckel—a tiny, but sweet and juicy American pear—and was not jam-packed with stone cells, yielding that sought-after, little-to-no grit, delicious flesh! Unlike the carefully groomed, centuries-old Belgian D’Anjous and Boscs, Warrens popped up almost from nowhere. They also taste great: it’s likely they are a cross between one of the most flavorful pears, the Giant Seckel, and the butteriest of all the pears, the Comice—a beloved French variety. 

One would think that the disease-resistant, don’t-care-it’s-hot-out, delicious, and buttery Warren pear, would be the perfect pear. Yet, in spite of all the wonderful qualities of the Warren, a common complaint in online pear forums is that it’s difficult to get the tree to bear fruit, which is one of the reasons grocery stores are unlikely to carry Warrens (Star Grocery and Berkeley Bowl in Berkeley are a few local exceptions).

Why wouldn’t an otherwise healthy pear tree bear fruit? According to Rachel Elkins, a University of California Cooperative Extension pomology farm advisor, it’s pollination. In general, pear trees make poor bee hosts and some do not produce sweet enough nectar in their flowers to attract visitors. The Warren pear tree is one of these low-rated bee watering holes: when planted side by side with other pear varieties, orchard owners in Texas noticed that when their pear trees bloomed, they never saw bees pollinate the Warren pear flowers. Warren pear trees are not self-fertile, so if bees or other pollinators ignore the Warren blossoms in the spring, there won’t be any fruit to harvest in the late summer and fall. To bear a lot of fruit, Warren pear trees need human intervention, patience, and time. At Frog Hollow, for example, the owner Al Courchesne deploys special fans or hand pollinates the trees. These extra steps and costs create a high barrier to entry for aspiring Warren pear growers, but it’s the price they have to pay for the rare buttery-plus-fire-blight-resistance combination the Warren pear offers.

bake, poach, stew, and combine

In case you’re inspired to try different pear varieties this season, brush up on this pear ripening guide to enjoy them at their best moment. Pear growers need to harvest the fruit before it ripens on the tree (otherwise they develop an unpleasant mealy texture) so pears need a couple of days on the counter to soften and finish ripening. My hack—by no means a fail-proof hack—for European pears is to press on the neck and smell the bottom. If the neck gives a little and there’s a sweet pear aroma, it’s ready. Once ripe, pears will keep well in the fridge for a week. You can also keep most of them unripe in the fridge for months!

If you end up with too many pears and don’t know what to do with them, it’s a good idea to warm up the oven. Recently, I had the pleasure of getting to know Marcy Goldman, a critically acclaimed food writer, master baker, and contributor to the New York Times, Washington Post, and Bon Appetite Magazine. I asked Marcy if she had any fun ideas for a seasonal pear dish and she responded with not one, but two delicious recipes for a sweet pear cranberry crisp and a pear streusel with a buttery pie crust. Marcy’s pear crisp requires less time (doesn’t use pie crust), so I started with that. With the nutmeg, cloves, allspice and, in my case, pomegranate because I couldn’t find cranberries, it felt like baking fall straight in the oven. Now I need to practice a little self-control and stop eating the rest of my pears so I have enough to bake the streusel! 

For stovetop opportunities, the Los Angeles Times honey-poached pear and yogurt recipe by Susan Latempa and Donna Deane seems like another great dessert… or breakfast. What I love about Susan, Donna and Marcy’s recipes is how they double down on the seasonality of October by calling for walnuts! October usually marks the start of walnut harvest season around the Bay Area so you can enjoy fresh-picked walnuts from tree to table this time of year. On the more savory end of the spectrum, there’s a fantastic Spanish stew, olla gitana (gypsy pot), which is a splendid combination of garbanzo beans, pears, green beans, mint, potato, and winter squash. Here’s Williams Sonoma’s adaptation. Finally, I recommend combining fresh pears and walnuts in a salad. I was recently inspired by a beautiful wedge of Point Reyes Farmstead Original Blue Cheese that caught my eye while doing a quick grocery run and recommend using it in this simple Rachel Ray recipe (minced shallots and Moroccan preserved lemons make great additions).

beyond genetics and cultivars

As I prepared the arugula salad, I tasted samples of the three different pears that went in it: Seckel, Warren, and Bartlett. The Warren, which is supposed to be one of the butteriest pears of them all, was grittier than the Bartlett—proof that in spite of our concerted effort to push stone cells aside, nature is incredibly adept at finding loopholes. That specific Warren pear also shines a light into the voids of our current pear knowledge. We’ve learned that selective breeding can give us more of the traits we desire. And damn if our obsession with controlling the textural traits of a pear to suit our preferences hasn’t redesigned the pear as we know it. But selective breeding is not enough to keep up with our taste preferences.

Scientific research acknowledges that our subjective assessment of pear quality improves as stone cells decrease, and researchers have only recently begun to understand what prompts stone cell formation. For example, external factors like water and pollen can transform an otherwise buttery Warren or Comice into a gritty pear. If a pear tree is water-stressed when it blossoms, those pears are likely to have more stone cells. Even if the tree isn’t water-stressed, pollination could still alter stone cells in pears. An Anhui Agricultural University paper published earlier this year suggests that the pollen from the pear tree that pollinates the receiving pear tree might determine the stone cell content of the receiving tree’s fruit.

Will our aversion to stone cells continue to change pear orchards? It most likely will. As we continue to enjoy and grow pears, however, let’s not suffer the same fate as stone cells and squeeze out pear diversity by going overboard with walling out stone cells. When we finally dethrone the stone cell and find or create the completely grit-free, bacteria-resistant, easy-to-grow pear, we should continue to grow the rest of the less manipulated varieties and avoid the perils of monoculture. Let’s celebrate pear diversity and be mindful of exerting too much pressure on pear growers to bend over backward to satiate our grit-free demands. Embracing a little stone cell here or there may help set us on a more balanced path to cultivating a diverse pear future.

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Andrea Castillo is a food nerd who always wants to know the what’s, how’s, when’s, and why’s of the food she eats.