The Pear
A nutritional and culinary history.

Pyrus communis, P. sinensis

While it is the duty of an apple
to be crisp and crunchable,
a pear should have such a texture
as leads to silent consumption.

Edward Bunyard, 1920.

Etymology: Middle English pere (A.D. 1139), from Old English peru, from (assumed) Vulgar Latin pira, from Latin, plural of pirum

A Fleshy pome fruit from a tree (genus Pyrus, especially Pyrus communis) of the rose family that is usually larger at the apical end. Their color depends on the variety but they can range from yellow, green with russet shades (Anjou and Round Comice pears), clear gold (Bartlett) with a reddish blush and sweet, juicy flesh; pure russet (Boscs).

In cooking pears, the flavor can be intensified by the introduction of red wine, almonds, and vanilla. Pears achieve a marvelous unity when eaten with chocolate. An Italian recipe calls for the combination of pears with parmesan and pecorino cheese - a good marriage of flavors.

Story of The Pear

Originating in the Caucasus region (Southeastern Europe between the Black and Caspian seas), Indo-European tribes spread the pear as they migrated into European and Northern India. After widespread interbreeding with other native pears of Europe and Asia, the original wild pear has now developed into over one thousand varieties.

Despite this abundance, there are two distinct types of pear that are worth looking into: the Pyrus pyrifolia (common name: Asian-, nashi-, apple-, salad pear) with their crisp, crunchy texture and pleasant aftertaste; and the Pyrus ussuriensis (Chinese white pear or Harbin pear) with the more typical oblong shape and sweet, pleasantly mushy texture.

Ancient Times. Before the Middle Ages, the pear had been considered a superior fruit to the apple. By the end of the Sung Dynasty (China, AD 1279), over one hundred varieties of pear existed while there was but one apple. This preference for the pear carried over to Greece and Rome as well. A discussion of fruit growth by the Greek writer Theophrastus included grafting and cross-pollination techniques for pears alone; in Rome, Pliny the Elder described 41 varieties of pear, while only three types of apple were noted.

During the The Middle Ages, the center of the pear's popularity became Italy, while Britain imported their stock from France. Cistercian monks in Bedfordshire (Southeastern area of England, curr. pop. 514,200), however, developed the still-popular Wardens pear, and was for centuries the most popular pear in the world.

In the 16th century, significant pear growth is indicated in two manuscripts detailing the fruits served at the table of the vegetarian Grand Duke Cosimo III of Florence, Italy; there were 232 listed varieties in that region alone. From 1640 to 1842, the number of varieties in Britain grew from 64 to 700. Louis XVI's interest in fruit and vegetable development coupled with the introduction of espaliered trees -- whose fruit ripened more evenly due to heavy trunks which forbid excessive wind to knock the fruit off branches -- helped to promote the growing of fine pears in the Paris region.

The most famous of 18th century pear-growers include Belgians Nicholas Hardenpont of Mons, who bred the juicy, soft pears known as Beurre (butter); and Dr van Mons who nurtured and further developed this strain, which remains among the finest pears in the world.

The Massachusetts Company introduced the pear to North America in 1629 when they ordered pear seeds from Britain. Many fine American strains arose because the first seeds brought over do not breed true to variety.

In the 19th century, a phenomenon known as Pearmania swept New England. Written accounts (see Jackson, 1995) suggest that the world has not seen such extraordinary enthusiasm for the pear since ancient times.

Current varieties:

  • Abbé French, greenish brown with red blush, a dessert pear
  • Anjou, same as Beurre below
  • Bartlett, American variety of Williams
  • Beurré, soft, juicy, aromatic
  • Clapp favorite, grainy, American dessert of moderate quality
  • Comice, broad, blunt pear greenish yellow, for dessert can be served alone, one of the highest quality pears
  • Eau d'vie, expensive variety which may come in a bottle (thank you, Ouroboros)
  • Glou Morceau, 18th Century French pear
  • Jargonelle, French pear from 1600 for dessert or cooking with a distinctive aroma used in the British 'pear drops' (flavor from Amyl acetate)
  • Josephine de Malines, a uniquely pink-fleshed, 19th century pear of Belgian origin
  • Kaiser, a loathsome, offensive pear, fit for the gutter's mouth, not yours
  • Louise Bonne De Jersey, a "painted, varnished hue
  • the red must be shining red, and the greener portion must be turning yellow" (Brooke)
  • Olivier de Serres, Southern European pear for dessert
  • Passe crasanne, late winter pear for cooking found in Southern Europe
  • Seckle, American pear with an unusual, pleasantly spicy flavor, though having a granular texture (1765)
  • Wardens
  • Williams, a pleasantly musky flavor (esp. the Poire Williams variety)
  • Winter Nelis, excellent spicy flavor, though it ripens a bit fast.

    Nutritional Content

    The pear contains high levels of dietary fiber (3.98 grams in the average pear), with insoluble cellulose in the skin; lignin in the tiny gritty particles in the fruit flesh; and soluble pectins. Vitamin C (6.64 mg: 11% of RDA) and sugar content is medium to medium-high, concentrated in the skin. The most fundamental nutrient found in pears is potassium (207.5 mg; similar to one-half cup orange juice).

    Purchase and Storage

    Look for firm, ripe pears with bright and luminous skin. Pectin enzymes cause most fruits and vegetables to soften after they are picked because the enzyme diminishes cell walls. Tree-ripened pears sometimes taste and feel mushy; the most tasty pear has been picked a short time before maturation and is allowed to ripen as it travels.

    Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion To Food. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
    Jackson, Ian. "Fragments of the History of the Pear" Petits Propos Culinaries (English), 1995.