In Season: Pears to poach, bake and eat out of hand

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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.

Or, maybe, contrary to accepted wisdom, North America did have at least one native pear before the arrival of the Europeans.

Seckel trees reliably bore a good crop year after year. And they grow perfectly well here in Sonoma County, too. I have found them mostly in farmers’ markets but occasionally in Oliver’s.

My other favorite pear is the delicious Comice, which arrives a little later in the year.

These plump, squat, lopsided, large pears are less musky and more delightfully aromatic, sweet, and juicy than Bartletts, and without question have the most silky, melting texture of any pear. Plus they have very few sclerenchyma cells in their flesh.

Comice was bred in Angers, France, the center of pear breeding work from the 16th through the 19th centuries. Anjou and Duchesse d’Angouleme are two popular varieties developed in those years.

Belgium then became the center of pear breeding, and the so-called “butter pears,” including Bosc, came from that country.

Pears are best eaten out of hand. But varieties like Anjou and Comice also bake well in galettes and tarts, while Seckel and Bosc — firmer pears — are best for poaching and for putting up as spiced pears.

In addition, pears show a great affinity for a wide range of flavors, including almonds, anise, brandy, chocolate, cloves, cinnamon, figs, honey, ginger, quince, Parmesan cheese, vanilla, and red wines, especially pinot noir and Beaujolais.

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This dessert has been a favorite in pear-obsessed France for 150 years. It’s an inspired combination of flavors and textures.

Poires Belle Helene

Makes 8 servings

1 cup sugar

1 quart filtered water

1 long, thin strip of lemon peel

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

8 firm ripe pears, peeled, halved, and cored

10 ounces semisweet chocolate, as morsels or in pieces

4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into bits

½ cup heavy whipping cream

2 pints vanilla ice cream

1 cup toasted slivered almonds

Place the sugar in a wide, heavy saucepan with one quart filtered water and the lemon peel. Heat gently and stir until the sugar is dissolved, then bring to a gentle boil and simmer for a minute. Remove from the heat and add the vanilla extract.

Place the peeled, cored pear halves in a single layer in the saucepan cut side down in the syrup and cover. Heat very gently for 15-20 minutes, until the pears are tender.

Transfer the pears to a large bowl and cover with the sugar syrup from the saucepan. Cool, cover, and refrigerate until cold.

Place the chocolate and ½ cup of warm water in the top of a double boiler (or in a heatproof bowl) over one inch of hot, not boiling, water.

Don’t let the bowl with chocolate touch the hot water. Stir until the chocolate melts, then stir in the butter and cream. Take it off the heat, but keep warm over the hot water.

Place two scoops of ice cream in each of 8 bowls. Arrange two pear halves over the ice cream so they touch at the top. Drizzle with the chocolate sauce and sprinkle on some almonds. Serve immediately.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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