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CALIFORNIA'S CRISPEST CROP

Asian Pears

Look Like a Plum, Taste Like a Pear, Crunch Like a Granny Smith

September 02, 1998|DAVID KARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a recent Sunday morning, Lester Kirksey almost caused a riot handing out free Asian pears at his stall at the Alhambra Farmers Market. As he furiously cranked a fruit peeler, the mostly Chinese-American crowd, several rows deep, crowded in with hands outstretched for samples.

A few yards away, another farmer from the San Joaquin Valley, Alex Causey, sold all his 47 boxes of round yellow pears in two hours.

One bite of a good Asian pear--crunchy, juicy and sweet--explains the commotion. While European pears such as Bartletts and Boscs ripen off the tree to develop a buttery texture and a musky, wine-like flavor, Asian pears are ready to eat at harvest and combine a subtle pear taste with the crispness of a firm apple. Although underripe or over-stored specimens have no more flavor than jicama, a freshly picked Asian pear gushes delicate juice that's ideally refreshing on a hot summer day.

Asian pears are botanically true pears (not, as some suppose, apple-pear hybrids) from three species indigenous to China, where they have been cultivated for 4,000 years. A book from the 1st century BC tells of pears "as large as a fist, sweet as honey and crisp as a water chestnut" and states, "Those who grow a thousand pear trees are as rich as barons with a thousand tenant farmers." In the 13th century, Marco Polo related seeing fragrant, white-fleshed pears weighing up to 10 pounds.

FOR THE RECORD - Setting the record Straignt
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 9, 1998 Home Edition Food Part H Page 2 Food Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
The photograph of the Asian pear tart that appeared on the Sept. 2 Food section cover was taken by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Kirk McKoy.

Today, pear orchards flourish throughout China, especially in the eastern and central regions. Last year China produced more pears than the rest of the world combined and virtually all were Asian pears. The European pear has never been popular in China.

The Japanese have grown crunchy pears since the 7th century, but the early fruits were tiny and gritty, with rough skins and an insipid flavor. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they bred sweet, succulent varieties, leading to widespread cultivation.

Most Japanese pear orchards are intensively worked operations of a few acres. The farmers go to fantastic lengths to deliver perfect nashi, as they call the fruit, placing double-layered bags around individual fruits on the tree, in the case of light-skinned varieties, to protect them against insects, disease and blemishes. Just before harvest, they remove the bags and put foil reflectors under the pears to develop an attractive rosy blush, turning the fruit by hand for even coloration.

The first American to grow Asian pears, William Prince of Flushing, N.Y., imported the "sand pear," as it was known in China, about 1820. During and after the California Gold Rush, Chinese miners and railroad workers planted Asian pear seeds in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. In the late 19th century, many Chinese sharecroppers grew pears, though no records remain to tell whether some were Asian kinds.

One of the earliest known commercial growers, a San Francisco physician named Dr. Wong Him, established a 15-acre orchard of round, brown Chinese pears in the Santa Clara Valley around 1921.

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Japanese immigrants, arriving between the 1890s and the immigration restriction of 1924, brought cuttings of improved varieties. From a few small orchards in the Sacramento Delta and in Placer County, particularly around the towns of Loomis and Newcastle, they sent shipments to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Eastern cities. After World War II, Asian pears fetched high prices--$18 a box, compared to $3 for peaches--so cultivation gradually expanded.

A new wave of Asian immigration beginning in the late 1960s prompted a wild gold rush in Asian pears from 1980 to 1987. As entrepreneurs in the Central Valley planted massive blocks of trees, acreage soared from a few hundred at the start of the decade to 5,000 or more at the end.

As happens with most such agricultural frenzies, however, glut ensued, and production leveled off or declined slightly in the last decade. California represents 80% to 90% of the domestic harvest (no one collects exact statistics), but substantial orchards exist in Oregon and Washington, and there are a few groves in Oklahoma, Georgia and New Jersey. Although the fruit's popularity at mainstream supermarkets has greatly increased in recent years, about two-thirds of sales are still to Asian Americans.

The king of California Asian pear growers is George Jackson, the owner of Kingsburg Apple Packers. His domain of vast orchards surrounded by chain-link fences, 20 miles southeast of Fresno, displays an almost military regimentation. On a recent morning, the 50-ish Jackson reviewed his troops: 600 acres of vigorous Asian pear trees, trained to Tatura trellises, a Y-frame system developed in Australia that maximizes exposure to the sun.

"Watch out, it's about to go off," he cautioned, pointing to what looked like a plastic mini-howitzer. Seconds later, the butane air gun exploded with a bone-jarring boom intended to scare off the marauding crows, starlings and sparrows that peck holes in the fruit.

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