British pears are at their best in September and October, so why is it so few of them hit the shelves in our supermarkets? I meet the growers and chefs with a passion for pears and discover how and why they are trying to reinstate them
Their skins can be golden, flushed pink, green or flecked brown; their flesh meltingly soft and juicy with a flavour redolent of butter, spices and honey; their names are romantic and almost regal: ‘Williams’ Bon Chrétien’, ‘Doyenné du Comice’, ‘Joséphine de Malines’, ‘Louise Bonne of Jersey’ and the supersonic ‘Concorde’.
Homer considered pears the “gift of the gods”, the Tudors: a highly prized winter food source, and by the 18th and 19th century every well-to-do homeowner had a stately pear tree growing against their house, or in the kitchen garden.
But today, despite being home to a collection of some 500 varieties of pears at Brogdale’s National Fruit Collection in Kent, most people are more likely to have sampled them from a tin rather than a tree, with the average shopper barely able to put a name to more than one or two varieties, and the supermarkets stocking even less.
With up to 80 per cent of our pears imported from abroad – and half of British pear orchards disappearing in the last 40 years – there’s even less chance of eating one from Britain.
So how has this much-loved fruit, this proud pome or, as Francois Pierre de la Varenne put it in his Le Cuisinier Francois, the founding text of modern French cuisine: “the grandfather of the apple, a fallen aristocrat” – go, so…well, pear shaped?
Like many of our ancient fruits and vegetables, it’s thought pears were brought to Britain by the Romans, but towards the end of the 14th century British gardeners were breeding their own in the shape of the ‘Warden’ pear – mentioned in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale – which became the parent of many UK varieties, and was quickly followed by Black Worcester and William.
“The Black Worcester was a great favourite in Tudor times when they didn’t have potatoes or pumpkins to see them through the winter as it could store well into March and April,” says Jim Arbury, apple and pear expert at RHS Wisley. “It was even incorporated into the coat of arms of Worcester.”
By 1640, thanks in part to breeding by stately home gardeners, some 64 varieties were being grown in the UK, and by the 18th century this has grown to around 600, with revolutionary new breeding techniques in Europe bringing us quality new varieties – Comice and Conference – that are now the mainstays of modern pear production.
Ripe or rotten
The 1920s and 30s, considered by many to be the ‘pear heyday’, saw production expand into Sussex, Essex, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, with Kent becoming the industry’s heartland.
But within decades our passion for pears had dwindled, and pomologist Dr Joan Morgan, author of the ‘Book of Apples’, who recently turned her unbridled enthusiasm for tree fruit to pears – cataloguing the 500 at Brogdale for a new book – says we no longer know how to handle them.
“Pears are fascinating and incredibly frustrating in equal measure,” says Joan. “You have to eat them at that exact point of ripeness to enjoy them fully, and people have lost touch with when this is. They want to eat them immediately but, unlike an apple, they need to ripened at home first.”
Indeed, it was American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson who ruminated that “there are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat” – and it seems many shoppers feel the same.
“If an apple is unripe then they are passable, but unripe pears are basically inedible,” says Joan. “Sadly this has led to the modern perception that all pears are hard and crunchy – it’s shameless!”
While a perfect pear is one that has a slight softness at the stalk and a subtle pear-drop aroma, this delicate balance between just ripe (sweet and juicy) to overripe (mushy and gritty) is something the supermarkets understandably struggle with, particularly when it comes to transporting them.
“Supermarkets like Conference because they can be eaten straight off the tree and in three weeks still be soft and juicy,” says third generation Suffolk pear grower Sophie Wheldon. “It stores well and looks good, so there’s no need for the buyers to look at any other varieties. In many ways, it also comes down to their thirst for ‘perfection’.”
Joan agrees. “Now we can import pears from the northern and southern hemispheres, supermarkets can feasibly have pristine pears all year round, and that sought-after continuity, so there’s not too much encouragement for farmers to grow pears in Britain.”
Farm and fortune
“It has become increasingly challenging,” says Sophie, who was handed the reigns of her grandfather’s Wheldon’s Fruit farm in Sudbury more than 15 years ago, and now grows Conference, Williams, Comice and Merton Pride. “European producers can produce them in larger quantities and much more cheaply.”
Sophie’s father Andrew, now semi-retired from the family farm, agrees. “After the trade barriers were lifted in the 1950s the number of UK fruit growers dropped from around 1,400 to 400,” he says.
Part of the blame lies with the climate. “We’re basically at the geographical limit of tree fruit growing,” adds Andrew. “Which means we have to use costly methods to avoid frost damage and we get lower yields.”
But there are many who are sympathetic to the pear’s plight and are attempting to stem the decline. Fruit grower George Mansfield of Mansfield & Son, one of the UK’s largest fruit growers, has been trialling a new ‘Sweet Sensation’ pear that has been bred for its super sweet flavour, blush colour and thinner skin, which is aimed at a younger shopper.
“I grew up living next to my family’s orchards so I have eaten pears since I was little – stewed, in pies, and fresh from the tree – but unfortunately there hasn’t been a huge amount of innovation and they’ve become a bit of an unloved fruit,” says George. “Sweet Sensation will hopefully do what ‘Pink Lady’ did for apples, and make more people aware of our country’s great tasting, fresh produce.”
For Jim Arbury at RHS Wisley, heritage pears are the answer and he’s responsible for more than 190 cultivars at the garden, as well as a pear identification service that allows people to send in pear samples so they can be catalogued.
“Pears can live for up to 300 years so many people end up with pear trees in their gardens and have no idea what they are,” says Jim. “It’s really important to continue to preserve these pears by keeping accurate records, and we also offer propagation material so people can grow them in their own gardens. By preserving the different flavours, one day we might have the right climate to grow them commercially again.”
With many experts predicting a bumper harvest this year, is it time you sought them out?
“I’d encourage people to eat British pears for their unique quality: the buttery flesh, the exotic perfumes of rose water, vanilla, lemon or orange that cannot be matched and should be celebrated,” says Joan Morgan.
Young pear grower Sophie feels honoured to be continuing an ancient traditon. “I feel very proud to be farming pears; we’re a dying breed,” she says. “And if you haven’t yet bitten into a beautiful, fat and juicy pear, and had the lovely, sweet juice run down your chin, you’ve not experienced one of life’s great pleasures!”
First published in Great British Food