According to that Greek poet, Homer, in The Odyssey, pears are “a gift of the gods”, and you’ll not find me disagreeing with him. Pears are among the world’s oldest cultivated and beloved fruits. Roman farmers documented extensive pear growing and grafting techniques. The early Romans developed over 50 pear varieties and spread them far and wide throughout Europe. Since then, hundreds more varieties have been introduced, the most popular being the Bartlett. Thanks to their versatility and long storage life, pears were a valuable commodity in the ancient world. The Renaissance Masters, considered them pears elegant still-life muses. In the 17th century a great flourishing of modern pear variety cultivation took place in Europe. And lets not forget, the pear tree was immortalized alongside a partridge in the 18th-century Christmas carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas.
Pears in the United States
Early colonists brought the first pear trees to America’s eastern settlements where they thrived until crop blights proved too severe to sustain widespread cultivation. Fortunately, the pear trees brought by pioneers in the 1800’s thrived in the unique agricultural conditions found in the Pacific Northwest. A similar journey was made to Northern California. Common, attractive geographic and atmospheric attributes include: volcanic soil, warm days and cool nights.
Pears are primarily grown (in the US) (~ 95%) in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.
Pears are part of the rose family.
Pears are Oregon’s number one tree fruit crop, its Official State Fruit.
Oregon’s total pear production ranks 3rd overall in the United States and 2nd in terms of fresh pear production.
Washington’s fresh pear production is the largest in the United States.
Pears ripen better off the tree from the inside out. The best way is in a brown paper bag at room temperature.
More than 3,000 varieties exist around the world. In the US the most popular is the Bartlett, with 60% of them grown in California.
Three Common Types of Pears
Bartlett pears arrived in 17th Century England, originally known as the Williams pear, before crossing the Atlantic with the early American colonists. Enoch Bartlett of Massachusetts, unaware of the pear’s true name, distributed the variety under his own name in 1812 and it quickly became America’s favorite. By 1849, Bartlett pear trees had arrived in California, brought West by prospectors eager to strike it rich in the Gold Rush.
Bosc are an elegant variety, with distinctive characteristics that set them apart from other pears, such as their crunchy/ tender flesh and their sweet-spiced flavor. Other unique features include their long, curved stem and elegant elongated neck that widens gradually to a full rounded base creates a silhouette that is unique among pears. Bosc are also unique for their color: a warm cinnamon brown with russeting over the surface of the skin.
Bosc pears are sweeter and more flavorful earlier in the ripening process than other pear varieties. As a result, the complex flavor, honey-sweetness, and juiciness can be enjoyed before their flesh has fully softened. Their firmer, denser flesh makes them ideal for cooking as they retain their shape and texture better than other varieties, and their flavor is less likely to be overwhelmed by strong spices like cinnamon, clove or nutmeg.
Bosc pears history is a bit murky as it remains a matter of contention whether Bosc are of Belgium or French origin. What is known is that Bosc pears were discovered early 1800’s. At that time, the European named pears using a two-name system, where the first name identified a characteristic of the fruit, and the second name referenced its origin or propagator. However, no single name stuck, and they are known in various parts of the world by several names. Buerré Bosc identifies the fruit as “buttery” and named after M. Bosc who was the director of the Paris Botanical Garden. Calabasse Bosc, another name, refers to its “gourd” shape. Then there is the name Buerré d’Appremont, where the variety is named for a French town. Some believe that Buerré Bosc was first raised from a seed about 1807 in Belgium by Mr. M. Bosc. Others contend that Buerré d’Appremont were discovered about 1830 as a very old seedling tree in the city of Appremont, France.
Comice are among the sweetest and juiciest of all varieties of pears, and favorites in holiday gift boxes and baskets. Their flesh is silky soft, and can best be described as creamy in texture, abundantly full of juice, and very sweet. For many pear lovers, Comice is the pinnacle variety of pears, and one best eaten raw.
Comice appear in all sizes, but their shape is unique among varieties; having a rotund body with a very short neck. They are often green, and sometimes have a red blush covering small to large areas of the skin surface. However, some newer strains are almost entirely red in color.
The sweet, buttery flesh of Comice is the perfect match with soft ripening cheeses like Brie, Camembert, or any of the blues. Unfortunately, the Comice’s extreme juiciness makes them a poor choice cooking.
I’ve always loved pears, but my interest was peaked recently with a trip to Lake County, California, which claims that at one time, it was the world’s leading pear producer.
Clear Lake is the epicenter of life in Lake County. Geologists believe that Clear Lake may be the oldest lake in North America, with lakes existing at its site for approximately 2.5 million years. Clear Lake was born when a huge landslide dammed the headwaters of Cold Creek, blocking westward water flow into the Russian River. Water filled the level valley.
Mount Konocti, the largest volcano of the Clear Lake Volcanic Field at 4,299 feet, rises above Clear Lake. The volcanic field (part of the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire) contains seven volcanic vents from 10,000 to 2.5 million years old. The Pomo Indians inhabited the region as many as 12,000 years ago, that 4,000 years before Egyptian civilization. Mount Konocti was revered as sacred by the tribes, who numbered in the thousands until the early 1800s.
By the mid 1850s, American pioneers and European families were making their homes in Lake County. Mines yielded quicksilver, gold, and borax. Privately owned toll roads were dug into the mountains, bringing more people, who built stores, banks, churches, saloons, and other businesses, forming dozens of communities in the hills and around Clear Lake.
In 1874, steamers began ferrying locals and tourists from town to town around the lake. Hotels and retreats were built at a feverish pace throughout the region. By the 1880s, the hills were dotted with luxurious resorts built around mineral springs. Wealthy visitors frequented the resorts, traveling to “take the waters” and indulge in lavish parties. It is believed that the 1906 earthquake caused many of the hot springs to stop, slow down, or go underground because most springs changed around that time and in the years that followed, fires destroyed most of the remaining resorts.
Vineyards & Wine
Lake County has a long wine history that dates back to the 1850s when early settlers first began planting vineyards, which flourished in Lake County’s Mediterranean microclimates and soil rich in volcanic ash. In 1888, acclaimed British actress Lillie Langtry purchased 4,190 acres in Guenoc Valley near Middletown, which included vineyards that had been planted in 1854. She brought her own winemaker, establishing the Guenoc & Langtry Estate Winery – today known as Langtry Estate & Vineyards – with their first vintage in 1891.
In 1893, a young Harvard graduate, Charles M. Hammond, won best exhibit for dry white and red wines at the World Exposition in Chicago with wine produced at his Lake County vineyard, earning Lake County a solid reputation for producing some of the world’s greatest wines. By 1909, Lake County had nearly 600 acres of vineyards.
The decline of tourism following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and Prohibition between 1920 and 1933, ended what was an internationally recognized wine industry. Hardy ranchers replaced grapevines with walnut, pear, and other fruit trees. But the course was reversed in the 1960s, as farmers rediscovered Lake County’s prime growing conditions for winegrapes. After the Napa Valley wine industry made a comeback, Lake County farmers began planting vineyards once again. By 1990, there were 2,700 acres of grapes in the county; and today it exceeds 8,500 acres.
The very first pears were planted here in the 1880s. Thomas Porteus is credited for planting the first commercial orchard in Lake County in the late 1800s, and by 1919, there were 700 acres of pears in the county.
In the early 1920s, the California Packing Company operated the largest dry yard in the world in Kelseyville. Early fruit was dried until after World War I and primarily shipped to Europe where food was desperately needed. In the mid-1920s, Europe required a tariff on imported foods just as boxing fresh fruit became the norm. While most boxed fruit was shipped or carried by train, Lake County had to haul pears by truck to the Hopland grade or Ukiah because the railroad system never made it to the area.
Through the 20th century, Kelseyville was revered as the “pear capital of the world.” In 1999 alone, 85,000 tons of pears were processed in Lake County – most in Kelseyville. Today, Lake County celebrates its special pears and agricultural history and heritage each year with the Kelseyville Pear Festival.