Is any fruit more exasperating than the pear ? Get lucky, and you bite into sweet, melting, juicy flesh with a heady, fragrant ‘pear drops’ perfume that is reminiscent – in the nicest possible way – of nail polish remover. Ripe pears have soft-yielding flesh and are highly digestible; that’s why they are often recommended as an ideal first fruit for babies. But such specimens are elusive. More likely, you will encounter a gritty-fleshed pile of mush with about as much flavour and scent as a raw turnip. Indeed, conduct your own straw poll amongst friends and family and you may well find that many of them believe they don’t like pears. As Britain’s distinguished food writer Jane Grigson put it: “Most people have never eaten a decent pear in their lives”.
It’s tempting to blame fruit growers, retailers and wholesalers for making the pear a disappointing eating experience but in truth, pears are a very tricky fruit to sell. They ripen from the inside out and the only indication that they are ready to eat is a slight give or softness around the stem. Eat them too soon and they will be dry and dull-tasting. Leave them too long and they turn brown and mushy at the centre.
So how do you get pears just right? Some patience is required. Unlike other fruits which are sold with the promise that they will ‘home ripen’ but never do, pears are ideal for this treatment. Buy them rock-hard and choose larger, more mature specimens. Put them in a bowl at room temperature in a heated house, then watch them like a hawk. (The fridge is their enemy because it will inhibit their natural ripening process). Squeezing them is out, a very gentle palpitation is fine, but be guided by your nose. When they begin to smell like pears, they should be rewarding to eat, much better than so-called ripe and ready pears that come swathed in protective packaging, cost considerably more, but frequently disappoint.
We have been growing pears in Britain for hundreds of years and our National Fruit Collection lists some 550 traditional varieties, such as Coppy, Ducksbarn, White Longdon and Yellow Huffcap. But unless you frequent farm shops or have a tree in the garden, you are unlikely to see them as only a handful of more commercial varieties dominate our shelves. According to Common Ground, which campaigns to encourage diversity in orchards, over half of all our pear orchards have disappeared in last 30 years.
Our native pear season is September through to October, and this is when UK pears are at their best. They can be kept in special cold stores where oxygen has been removed from the air to aid preservation until after Christmas, but they don’t have the same flavour as when they are at their seasonal peak. No surprise then that some 80 percent of the pears we eat in Britain are imported, clocking up unnecessary food miles. Although pears are not flown in from overseas, they do require shipping and road transport. To preserve them during long transit, imported pears are routinely treated with post-harvest fungicide waxes to prevent wrinkling and keep them looking attractively glossy. They don’t have to be labelled as waxed.
Pears have been one of the fruits most heavily treated with pesticides. In 2000, for instance, UK pears were treated with chemicals on average 23 times, according to the Government’s pesticide usage survey. Between 1995 and 2004, government monitoring found residues in 64 percent and 71 percent of UK and imported pears respectively. For several years on the trot government tests also found residues of chlormequat, a growth regulator used to produce higher yields of evenly-sized fruits. This chemical is banned for use in pears in the UK but was legal in Europe until recently. UK pear growers set up protocols to reduce pesticide use and promote more natural methods of pest management and since then, residues in British-grown pears have reduced. “The pear industry has made substantial progress in reducing its use of pesticides in recent years in response to pressure from its customers. There is a willingness within the industry to reduce pesticides wherever possible” says the Food Standards Agency. Imported pears are still a problem, however, so the government tests them monthly. This June, for instance, all imported pears tested contained residues, most with traces of more than one chemical.
So some would argue that this means there is a very strong case for eating UK-grown fruits and choosing organic, or at least choosing less glossy, less perfect-looking specimens. They may have russeting (natural matt brown patches) or superficial skin defects. They may be all shapes and sizes. They may not have that fashionable red blush that supermarkets love. But then, when it comes to what we eat, inner wholesomeness beats cosmetic beauty every time.
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