With an epithet like “gifts of the gods” — so christened by the Greek poet Homer — it’s no wonder that the pear enjoys a reputation as a divine delicacy. The Romans also celebrated the pear in mythology. Pears are sacred to three goddesses: Juno, Venus and Pomona, who is the Italian goddess of gardens and harvests.
The Chinese, too, revered the pear, believing it a symbol of immortality, since pear trees live for a long time. The Chinese word “li” means both “pear” and “separation,” and for this reason, tradition cautions that to avoid a separation, friends and lovers should not divide pears between themselves.
Pears are believed to have been first cultivated by the Chinese in the East about 5000 B.C. Romans and Phoenicians are credited with cultivating the pear in the 8th century. As the Roman Empire spread through Europe, so did the popularity of the pear. The American colonists brought the pear with them from 17th century England. Today, there are more than 3,000 known kinds of pears grown around the world.
The cultivated pear is a close cousin to the apple and the two share many of the same characteristics. The pear, scientifically known as Pyrus communus, is also a member of the rose family of fruit. In fact, one major variety of pear, commonly called Asian pear, is often called apple pear because its shape is round and it has the crisper texture of the apple. The pear, however, is much more delicate than the apple. They also differ in how they ripen: Apples need to be picked when fully ripe and most pears ripen after harvesting.
Here are the most popular and commonly found pears in American markets:
Buying & Storing Pears
Since most pears – except for Asian pears – ripen best off the tree, when you plan to use your pears determines how you choose them, much like choosing an avocado. If you are looking for a ripe pear to eat immediately, press a finger gently into the top of the pear just where the stem joins the fruit. If it yields to pressure, it’s ripe and ready to eat. If you want to have the pears in a few days, you can buy them when they’re hard and ripen them at home. Don’t buy pears that are soft anywhere else, because that means they are overripe and their flesh will likely be mushy and mealy.
Since pears ripen after harvesting, you can control the speed of their ripening by how you store them. If you want to hold them for a few days, refrigerate them. Just don’t refrigerate an unripe pear. If you want to eat them right away, leave them at room temperature on the kitchen counter. You can also speed up the ripening process by placing the pears in a paper bag, along with a ripe banana or apple. The pear absorbs the ethylene gas the other fruits emit, accelerating the ripening process. Once the pear is ripe, it can be refrigerated to slow the ripening process and saved for use up to five days later.
Pears are a great accompaniment to a cheese platter, especially bleu or Roquefort, brie, gorgonzola or Stilton. Poached pears with a chocolate or caramel sauce is a classic and easy dessert, dressed with a sprinkling of almonds or walnuts. Cinnamon, honey, lemon, vanilla and balsamic vinegar are also great enhancements to pears.
Preparing & Using Pears
Pears need to be washed before using, whether you plan to eat the skin or not. Pay special attention to the stem end and the calyx (bottom end). To core the pear, cut through the whole pear, top to bottom, then cut into quarters. Using a paring knife, cut into the core, angling at a “V” to remove the core.
Like many fruits, the flesh of cut or peeled pears will eventually brown. Although this natural oxidation process doesn’t affect the taste of the pear, it does affect eye appeal. To prevent browning, you can use ascorbic acid or dip cut fruit into a mixture of half water, half lemon juice.
Pears can be eaten raw out of hand, cut into a salad, roasted, grilled, baked or pureed into butters, sauces, even soups.
Techniques and Recipes
Rosemary Wolbert is a writer cum gentlewoman farmer. A former corporate communicator, she now relishes the quiet country life — just reading, cooking and writing in Pennsylvania. She publishes the blog Sprigs of Rosemary and writes a monthly newspaper column, “Good Food Matters” and believes food bridges all kinds of barriers, real or imagined.