by Dave Arnold
My new favorite place on earth is the Brogdale Farm in the town of Faversham, county Kent, England. It’s Disney World for fruit lovers –if Disney World were almost free and completely deserted. They have the largest collection of culinary apples in the world, and Nastassia and I went to taste them in October. (The Brogdale was the second stop on my worldwide apple pilgrimage. Geneva, New York– where the US Government keeps the largest collection of culinary and non-culinary apples in the world – was the first, and God willing the last stop will be the Tian Shan fruit forest in Kazakhstan.)
To reach the apple orchards you must first pass by the Brogdale’s pear collection. Though I’d never taken pears seriously, I decided to taste some (they were, after all, within arm’s reach). This short diversion turned into an hours-long pear extravaganza. We tasted well over 200 varieties of Pyrus communis –the European pear. My fruit-consciousness was forever expanded. The pear is worthy of deep, deep study.
The Brogdale Farm is home to the National Fruit Collection. The land is privately owned but the fruit collection is publicly owned and is maintained by the University of Reading. While the United States has its fruit collections spread across the country, Britain keeps everything in one place at the Brogdale: 2222 varieties of apple, 530 pears, 303 plums, 329 cherries, 213 currants, 155 gooseberries, 54 grapes, 47 cobnuts (hazelnuts and filberts), plus a smattering of quinces, apricots, medlars, and Asian pears (search their database here). In the US, the ideal growing conditions for different fruits occur in different places –apples in NY (sorry Pacific Northwest), pears in Oregon, etc. In Britain, county Kent is the place to be if you are a fruit. It is the mildest and warmest place on the island. And the mildest, warmest place in Kent is the Brogdale in Faversham –a temperate fruit Eden.
We arrived at the farm early one Monday afternoon to find …no one. We searched around for 15 minutes till we found someone willing to accept our five pound entrance fee (we think he worked there). Perusing the size of the orchards and gardens on the map we scrounged up, I began to grasp what was in store for us. At that moment a tour bus pulled into the parking lot, spilling its passengers next to us. I was afraid we’d be saddled with this group in the orchards – they’d eat all the precious fruit! I needn’t have worried. As soon as their pictures were snapped in front of the sign in the parking lot they piled back on the bus and left. Did they not know they were one hedgerow away from pomological Nirvana? Excepting pheasants and rabbits we didn’t see another soul the entire afternoon. We roamed the orchards as we pleased.
The Tasting Strategy:
Nastassia and I tasted the first 20 or so pear varieties together. Once we had a baseline of tastes, textures, and aromas we split rows to tackle the rest of the orchard. Nastassia tasted pears on the right; I tasted pears on the left. If either of us tasted a variety that was somehow noteworthy, we had the other one taste it and we took notes. We tasted every pear variety that still had fruit on the tree except the perry- pears (pears specifically for pear cider, which are in a separate field).
Pears are as varied in taste, texture, shape, size and aroma as apples are –maybe more so. In fact, the morphological variety of pears led to Nastassia’s greatest quote of all time, “If someone calls you pear shaped, you shouldn’t get offended till you ask them what kind of pear they’re talking about.”
The Wardens –Culinary Pears:
Some pears were hard like rocks and had very little flavor. Some were just under ripe or bad. Others were part of a whole category of pears unknown to most of us in the US –culinary pears, or wardens. Wardens are an ancient category of pear that predates dessert pears. Unlike culinary apples, which are hard and tart but usually taste OK, most wardens are useless till cooked –they never soften up on their own and need to be cooked for hours. Because they stay hard, they also keep a long long time –a very useful trait pre-refrigeration. Unfortunately for me I didn’t know any of this, so I poo-pooed such famous culinary pears as Catillac (which turns pink when cooked) and Black Worcester.
I grew up eating chardwarden, a medieval pear compote my mom is partial to; but we’ve always used under-ripe dessert pears instead of true wardens (not out of laziness –out of ignorance). If I had done my pear research before the tasting I would have purchased a hotplate, stolen some wardens, and made chardwarden in the hotel room.
Acidity, Crunchiness and Appleness:
Most pears are acid deficient to an acid-eater like myself, but Double de Guerre, a 19th century Belgian variety that is technically a cooking pear, had the taste and malic acid hit of a good granny smith apple –and was crunchy to boot. Scipiona, an old English variety, was another green-apple wearing a pear costume. Other pears had hints of apple flavor without the acid, like De Duvergnies and Crassane, two tender aromatic pears that reminded us of sweet apples –in a pear sort of way. There were even acidic pears that didn’t remind us of apples at all: Beurre Duval, a relatively recent Belgian pear, had the taste of a semi-tart pear candy.
Most pears in US supermarkets are somewhat grainy in texture –even when soft and ripe. I’d thought granularity was a hallmark of pear texture –and indeed it was; pre-19th century pears are almost always granular. I never really appreciated this aspect of pears –it’s part of the reason I’d been prejudiced against them all these years. Pears that aren’t supposed to be granular are called Beurre, butter, because their flesh is soft and melting. In this country, the two most famous beurre pears are Beurre D’Anjou and Beurre Bosc –both of which, as grown here, are usually granular. Even Comice (aka Doyenne Du Comice) pears, the best commercial variety available (from a taste standpoint), usually has some textural flaws. I’m here to tell you there are some pears that really put the butter in beurre.
The Beurre Superfin is one of the best fruits I have ever had. It makes the best Comice I’ve had look foolish. It was raised in France (where they know from pears) in the mid 19th century. The flesh was terrifically aromatic, sweet and complex and exploded with juice. The texture was… well…. superfine. The problem with this fruit is it doesn’t keep well, is a finicky grower and is very susceptible to disease here in the US (more on that later). Bummer.
Other super-buttery pears were the Beurre Brown (absurdly buttery, and the first pear to be called beurre in 1605 –a full hundred years before the rapid proliferation of the beurre varieties). and the Beurre Dumont, whose textures alone would have merited great praise –on any other day at any other place. At the Brogdale in mid October, they were almost lost in the embarrassment of pyrus-a-plenty
Pears with Strange Flavors:
Sini Armud was hard and tasted of oranges. Beurre D’Avalon was soft and tasted of rosewater.
On the really weird side: Hermansverk 1/1 tasted of canned black California olives, the unnamed JI 4244 tasted animal –like musk, and Perdue 41 was a dead ringer for giant water-bug essence (a flavor I am trained to root out).
Two Rare Pears. Help us find Them:
Of course, the two pears we were most interested in were so rare I could find no references to them in any pomological texts or internet sites except the Brogdale’s. Please help us identify and find them.
Nurun Burun, whose name, I believe, means graceful smell in Turkish, had the texture of a soft ripe pear but the indescribably fantastic aroma of a fine quince and not a hint of astringency –a once in a lifetime pear. Nimrod, besides having the funniest name in the collection, tasted just like Kraft brand caramel squares, and was Nastassia’s favorite pear of the day.
General Notes on the Tasting:
I think we got a good feel for the pear’s range of tastes and textures, but we were hampered by two things:
We were only tasting pears on one day, grown in a particular location. Some pears were not yet ripe, some were overripe, and some trees had already dropped their fruit. If I lived in London, I would go at least twice a month during fruit season. The farm is only an hour from Paddington station by train. Pears are also sensitive to their terroir –a great pear in Kent might taste mediocre in New York and vice versa. Because of this, I hesitate to pass negative judgments on fruit varieties based on one single tasting. After all, someone loved every named fruit variety enough to save it, and propagate it. Most likely, if a fruit seems useless, either you are using it incorrectly, or it is being grown in the wrong place.
Pears shouldn’t normally be fully ripened on the tree. Unlike most fruits (except certain apples and medlars), for peak flavor pears should be picked under ripe and stored awhile –difficult for an American who isn’t allowed to bring fresh fruit back on an airplane.
Mo Pears, Mo Problems, Pear Literature, Pear History:
There isn’t much being written these days about the pear. The only relatively recent reference work I was able to find was Pears, by Jim Arbury and Sally Pinhey, which isn’t as comprehensive as I’d like, but if you are visiting the Brogdale get a copy –it has a list of the Brogdale’s collection in the back, which is helpful for note taking. All the great works on pears were written in the 19th and early 20th century.
The first essay you should read on pears is in Edward Bunyard’s delightful fruit paean The Anatomy of Dessert. He writes, “After thirty years of tasting Pears I am still unfurnished with a vocabulary to describe their flavour.” If any writer can make you love pears merely with prose, Bunyard can.
After Bunyard you should dive into U.P. Hedrick’s monumental work, The Pears of New York (1921).I’ll review that book more fully in a future post — aside from providing descriptions of hundreds upon hundred of pears and having stunning full color plates, it does a very good job of tracing the history and development of modern pear varieties –and pear problems.
Although the pear has been around for millenia, the explosion of modern varieties really began in the 18th century in Belgium. Hedrick writes, “Providence ordained Belgium to produce the modern pear…Nearly all pears, before the Belgians began to improve them, were crisp or breaking in flesh… while the soft-fleshed, melting pears, the beurres of the French were as yet hardly known. Now, mostly owing to the work of the Belgians, the buttery pears predominate (pages 16-17).” Why Belgium? Holland had tulips, Belgium had pears. A cult of amateur horticulturists sprang up in Belgium and it became a fashionable hobby to develop new pear varieties (as it did later in England). It is to the work of these amateurs, rather than professionals scientists or growers, that we owe our delicious pears –but, as Hedrick points out, that is also the problem. Because the great varieties were not developed with production in mind, they don’t necessarily conform to commercial growers’ needs.
Hedrick, in 1921, addressed the problem of why great pears aren’t more readily available –specifically why apples beat pears commercially — and his words still ring true:
Pears are more varied in size, shape, texture, and flavor of flesh than others of the hardy tree-fruits, and in length of season exceed all others excepting apple. Varieties of pears, possibly, have the charm of individuality more marked than varieties of its orchard associates… Why, then, is the pear not more popular in America? Conditions of Climate, pests, season of ripening, taste and trade prevent the expansion of pear culture on this side of the Atlantic[p38]…. Pears compete with apple more than with any other fruit, but are at a disadvantage with this near relative in having a much shorter period during which the fruits can be used… Still another reason why the pear is not a popular dessert fruit in America is that, of all fruits, the varieties of this one are the most variable in quality of product… Lastly the pear falls short of the apple as a commercial product because it is not nearly so easy to handle as a commercial crop… Failing in comparison with the apple, as a commercial product,pears are largely left to fruit connoisseurs, and with these a generation ago the pear was the fruit of fruits, many splendid collections of it having been made in regions where pears could be grown. With the expansion of commercial fruit growing, collections of pears, and with them many choice varieties, have gone out of cultivation –more is the pity [pages 39-40].
The pear pests that Hedrick mentions are more dogged here than in Europe. The worst of them is Fire Blight, a disease caused by bacteria that attacks many trees of the Rosaceae family, including apples, pears, and hawthorns –but really beats up on pears. Even today there’s no cure. People try to spray whole fields with antibiotics during flowering time, but that doesn’t seem like a fantastic idea. The only real ways to control it are to cut out and dispose of diseased wood quicky and plant resistant varieties (which may or may not taste good). Fireblight is a doozy of a problem and is entirely American –or was. Sometime in the mid 20th century, Fire Blight made it to Europe, and even to Kent -in 1957. You’re welcome.
As You Leave Brogdale Farm:
Make sure you stop at the cider shop just outside the farm. It has the best collection of ciders I’ve seen and the owners are good people. If you get there at closing time, are friendly and chat them up, they might even give you a ride back to the train station.
Next Stop on the Pear Tour?
Corvallis Oregon, where the US National Clonal Germplasm Repository (that means orchard) for pears is located is on my must see list for Fall 2011.