In Season: Pears to poach, bake and eat out of hand
In late August and September the pears come in. In August, they’re mostly hard, green Bartletts — and that’s a good thing.
You see, Bartletts, like many European pears, ripen from the inside out. As they ripen, they also begin to produce a pectic enzyme that eventually turns their sweet, meltingly delicious flesh into brown mush. And so, if left to ripen on the tree, Bartlett pears will be gnarly brown inside and worthless as fresh fruit.
Bartletts — known as Williams pears in the U.K. where they were bred in the 1770s (Bartlett was the name of the North American importer) — need to ripen off the tree. Their green color rather quickly turns a soft yellow, and that’s your signal to gobble them up, because their moment of delectability lasts only a day or two, and then the enzyme goes to work on the pectin in the pears’ cell walls. The smooth flesh turns wooly, as the Brits say. We say mushy. Their quality is lost.
These pears are finicky about their ripening conditions. Direct sunlight stimulates the enzyme production, shortening the moment of perfection even more. They don’t like to touch each other, or brown spots of soft tissue will result. They need good air circulation so they shouldn’t be put into a plastic bag or stored in the fridge. I put a pad of newspaper on the floor — or lay down paper toweling on a kitchen counter out of direct sunlight — and space the hard green Bartletts on the paper so the fruits don’t touch.
When the green starts turning yellow, press the flesh just where the stem enters the pear. If it “gives” slightly, the pear is ready to eat. Though they are common and ubiquitous in our stores, Bartletts are uncommonly delicious, with only a few of the sclerenchyma cells that are the gritty little stone cells that many other varieties of pears display so noticeably in their texture. While they detract from a pear’s melting texture, they are the source of a pear’s healthful fiber, which includes pectin, gums, cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignins.
Bartletts are only the start of the delights this family of fruits offers. For instance, wealthy citizens of ancient Rome wore silk that had been carried one horse-clop at a time more than 5,000 miles from China on the Old Silk Road. The caravans carried more than silk, however.
They also carried apples and pears from the steppes of Central Asia. Scholars believe that the pear depicted in 2,000-year-old Roman murals is a variety we still have today, the White Doyenne.
It is, in fact, Chef Alice Waters’ favorite. I’ve only seen this variety in farmers’ markets, but if you can’t find them for sale and have room, Raintree Nursery sells semi-dwarf White Doyenne trees.
I have two favorite pears. Decades ago, I lived in a number of old Pennsylvania Dutch farmhouses, and each invariably had a Seckel pear growing somewhere in the front yard. These are small pears, greenish-to-yellowish-brown, sometimes with a reddish blush, but very spicy, sweet, intensely flavored, with a firm texture even when ripe — and quite unlike other European pears. A man named Dutch Jacob found this pear as a volunteer seedling in a parcel of northern Delaware woodland he bought in 1765. Pears, like apples, don’t come true to variety from seed, so it could have been a lucky sport of existing pears, grown from a seed dropped by a bird.