One of the joys of autumn is the appearance of indigenous pears on supermarket shelves, October 4th marking the start of this year’s British apple and pear season. While there may be over five hundred varieties of pear, according to the Defra National Fruit Collection, the odds are that the British pear you will see on the shelves will be a Conference, which, at 15,600 tonnes in 2020, accounted for over 90% of the UK’s commercial pear production.
Slightly larger than other varieties, the Conference has a distinctive elongated bottle shape and a thick greenish-brown skin that attains a yellowish hue as it ripens. The brown patches on its skin, which can seem disconcerting to the eye, are known as russets and are not only edible but give the fruit a delicious nutty flavour. Russeting is generally caused by moisture on the fruit’s skin as it grows.
One of the Conference’s advantages is that it can be eaten when slightly unripe or ripe, its taste and characteristics changing between the two states. Unripe, its flesh is white, crunchy, with a slightly acidic taste, making it ideal for cooking as it keeps its shape reasonably well. Left in the fruit bowl for a couple of days to ripen, the flesh turns to a slightly yellowish colour, and is soft, juicy, and sweet. A case of chacun à son gout.
Once picked the Conference has a long storage life, if kept at temperatures of around minus one degree Centigrade. Gardeners will find that they will last well into January if they are put in a refrigerator. Fruiting when it is around three years old, a year earlier, on average, than its rivals, the Conference reaches maximum cropping potential at around the six-year mark. Disease free, it can have a productive life of around 35 to forty years, although they will live for much longer. It is easy to see why the Conference has dominated the market.
The pear, Pyrus communis, the fifth most widely produced fruit in the world, originated in China and Asia Minor, but soon spread westwards. The palace of Alcinous had “pear upon pear waxing ripe”, according to the Homeric Odyssey (7.120), one of “the glorious gifts of the gods” bestowed upon the king of the Phaeacians. By the first century BC the Romans, using propagation methods not dissimilar to those deployed today, had more than forty cultivars while a century later Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia, detailed all the known varieties.
The Romans almost certainly introduced cultivated pears to western Europe, including Britain. In the Middle Ages pears were mainly used for cooking, either stewed or baked and flavoured in honey and sweet wine, in an attempt to make what was a tough, grainy, and sour fruit vaguely edible. However, by the 17th century, the royal horticulturalist, Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, however, had so advanced the cultivation of the pear that it was deemed a fruit worthy to grace the table of Louis XIV.
Amongst Quintinie’s creations was a buttery eating pear. Many of the varieties he grew would seem unfamiliar to us, some so small that they hung like a bunch of grapes while others were gigantic. Quintinie was an enthusiastic fan, writing in 1661 that “among all the fruits in this place [Versailles], nature does not show anything so beautiful nor so noble as this pear. It is pear that makes the greatest honour on the tables”. Sadly, they were beyond the pocket of all but the rich.
To be continued….
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