Now is the season for Asian pears. Oh, they’re not as soft and creamy as European pears like Bartletts, and not as sweet and fragrant as apples, but they are as subtle and elegant as a Japanese garden, as delicate as a Chinese painting and deserving of more praise than they ordinarily receive.
Their botanical name is Pyrus pyrifolia, and if you’ve tried to grow them here in Sonoma County, where summer mornings are often moist and foggy, you’ll know why that’s an apt name for them. The root word “pyr” comes from the Greek word for “fire,” and Asian pears are generally susceptible to a bacterial disease called fire blight. Infected leaves turn brown or black and stay on the branches. Shoot tips turn black and curl downward. The fruits turn black and hang on the branches. I know one grower in Sebastopol who lost several acres of Asian pears to this disease.
Local growers plant varieties that show some resistance to fire blight, although such resistance isn’t perfect. These include Kosui, Korean Giant, Seuri, Shinko, Shinsui and several others. After losing my Hosui Asian pear to fire blight two years ago, I replanted this year with Shinko and so far so good.
Even though it was the first year in the ground, my Shinko bore a half-dozen russeted, round fruit of a golden bronze color.
The crisp white flesh was mild flavored, very juicy, and had a fine texture without many stone cells — those gritty bits that pears can develop. While you might expect a luscious sweetness like a ripe Bartlett, you get only a light sweetness, and where you might expect an acid tang like an apple, you get only a subdued acidity.
Some people find this confounding, but Asian pears are simply subtle when eaten out of hand. They tend to be less so when used with other foods. Their crisp texture makes them great for adding to salads, for instance. They pair up beautifully with chocolate. And by combining bite-sized pieces of them with sweet ripe raspberries and acidic bits of peeled and chopped kiwi fruit, you get a medley of textures and flavors that are wonderfully intriguing. And it goes without saying that Asian pear slices are a perfect match for a fine white wine, especially if that wine is acidic with loads of bubbles.
Because their crispness is one of their most salient features, I see no good reason to cook Asian pears. They do make superior granitas — peel and core them and make a puree of them in the blender, adding one part extra-fine sugar to four parts of the pears. Mix well and pour the mixture into a bowl or tray. Place it in the freezer and give it a stir every 10 minutes or so until it’s frozen and pebbly. Very delicate and refreshing.
Slices of fresh Asian pear are also a fine accompaniment to a selection of cheeses, especially mild ones like fresh goat cheese, taleggio, and Swiss.
It wasn’t that long ago that Asian pears were rare in American markets and were usually found only in specialty stores serving the Japanese or Chinese communities. Now there are dozens of varieties, including the excellent Hosui. Despite the problems with fire blight, Asian pears grow well in parts of the Bay Area out of the fog belts and where the trees are not flushed into succulent growth by the over-application of high-nitrogen fertilizers, both situations that promote the growth of the fire blight bacteria.