The pear industry has come a long way since Enoch Bartlett bought an eastern seaboard estate in 1817 and decided the fruit growing on the land was worthy of his name.
Today, Bartlett pears and other varieties rank as the world's third most popular fruit born from deciduous trees. Only apples and peaches edge out the oblong fruit in this category.
And with the Pacific Coast region home to two-thirds of all pears harvested in the United States, a wealth of the product is readily available locally--at handsome prices.
Because of a large summer harvest--mainly of the green-skinned Bartlett variety--prices have been relatively low so far this year. About 59 cents a pound is the current going rate. The winter harvest--most notably the golden Bosc type--has just commenced and should be showing up at local markets very soon. Currently hovering around 69 cents a pound, the price for Bosc pears is likely to come down a bit later in the season as more begin to flood the market. Upon harvest, the winter pears must spend time in cold storage to reach their peak quality.
While the harvesting of most pears--grown in California, Oregon and Washington--will cease about the end of September, the stock will last through December.
"Pears hold very well," said grower Debbie Harvey. "We're able to keep them in storage for quite some time, much like we would with apples."
European variety pears, such as the Bartlett and Bosc, must be picked unripe "because they have a soft melting flesh," Harvey said. "The fruit ripens from the stem down. If it wasn't picked green, the fruit would fall off the stem."
Harvey Farms, located in Delano, offers a variety of pears and other tree-grown fruits at the Thousand Oaks farmers' market. In fact you will find an impressive assortment of pears at the local outdoor bazaar. But almost all of the pears will be coming from outside Ventura County because very few are grown here.
Harvey Farms offers a variety you may be seeing more and more of at your local grocer. "We're best known for our Asian pears," Harvey said. Asian varieties are recognized by their more roundish, apple appearance. "We're seeing more being grown here in California because they're starting to become more popular with Caucasian customers," she said. "They always have been very popular with Asians, who make up 90% of our pear customers."
Unlike the European types that are ideal for canning, poaching and baking, the Asian varieties are best for eating fresh. A bite into one reveals an extremely crisp and juicy flesh. "Because they have such a high juice content," Harvey said, "it's hard to get the right consistency when baking."
Differing from its European cousins, the Asian pear must not be harvested early because it will not ripen off the tree. About 14 varieties are grown in California. Some originate in Japan, some from China. All are either smooth and yellow skinned or brownish and more rough skinned.
Harvey suggested using the crispy Asian types for a sweet embellishment to salads. "The flesh will not turn brown, it stays nice and white," she said. (The core should be removed, however, because it will discolor.)
If you need a quick dessert, try sauteing the Asian pear, she said. Peel, wedge and toss in a pan with a teaspoon of vegetable oil. Saute until lightly browned. Throw in some sugar and continue to saute until the sugar caramelizes.
Harvey's three Asian varieties go for about $1 a pound.
The Otani family, who live locally but operate Kosmo Ranch in the Cuyama Valley, attend a number of farmers' markets in Ventura County. A specialty of theirs is the colorful and decorative red Bartlett. "The red has a texture that's less grainy than the green Bartlett," Anthony Otani said recently at the Wednesday market in Ventura. The green and red type both share the same sweet, buttery flavor, he said.
High in dietary fiber and vitamin C, Bartlett pears can easily be ripened at room temperature by placing them in a brown paper bag until the fruit yields to gentle pressure, Otani said. Kosmo Ranch pears are available at the Oxnard, Ventura (Saturday and Wednesday), Thousand Oaks and Camarillo markets.
SERVING SUGGESTION / PEAR BREAKFAST PUDDING
The following recipe combines glazed pears with raisins and oatmeal. Sprinkle with cinnamon and bake for a tasty way to start the day.
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup raisins
2 cups cooked oatmeal
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Core and slice pears. Saute in butter until tender. Add brown sugar and cook over low heat, stirring until pears are glazed.
Place alternate layers of pears, raisins and oatmeal in buttered baking dish, sprinkling each layer with cinnamon. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Makes six servings.