Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

A plug for pears

Piled high in supermarket displays and hanging from leafy limbs in local orchards, pears are in abundant supply these days. And yet, they often go ignored.

“People don’t buy as many pears as they buy apples. They don’t know what to do with them, nor do they know the different varieties available,” said Carol Kesler, who uses pears and other fruits from her family’s farm, Tree-Licious Orchards in Port Murray, at her Just Made Bakery in Hackettstown. Recently, a customer at the farm who had come to pick apples with her young children told her, “‘I never buy pears. I don’t really know what they taste like,’” recalled Kesler. “That’s a shame,” she said. “They’re really good.”

“The pears don’t get a lot of publicity. They just don’t get the play that the apples get. I don’t know why,” said her husband, James, who sells his fruit at farmers’ markets in South Orange, Pennington, Montclair, Ringwood, Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as at his orchard. “It’s a problem selling pears. You have to go through a lecture.” “It’s a hard sell,” agreed his wife. “Maybe they’ve been disappointed with what they’ve gotten at the supermarket, so they’re afraid to try them. It’s hard to convince them that they can still be firm and they’re ready.”

The goal of pear growers is to pick their fruit when it’s mature but before it has fully ripened. “If you let them get ripe on the trees, they get rotten inside. You’ve got to pick them a little green,” explained Harry Schnieber of Stoneyfield Orchards in Belvidere, who tends about 60 pear trees. But if the pears are picked too soon, no amount of ripening time will allow them to develop their full flavor. “In the west they tend to pick immature fruit so it’ll last to get to the eastern markets,” he said.

Assuming you don’t leave the pears hanging past their prime, “you’re going to get a better quality if you leave them on the tree longer,” said Anita Hepler of Fruitwood Orchards in Monroeville, which sells its pears at markets in Princeton, Collingswood and Philadelphia.

Though pear trees can survive for hundreds of years, they grow more slowly and are less tolerant of the cold weather than apples and are particularly susceptible to fire blight, a bacterial infection that can set in around bloom time if the temperature and humidity are high. “It starts at the tip, it comes down the surface of the tree and the whole limb dies, and it spreads to other parts of the orchard,” said James Kesler. Despite some fire blight problems in his orchard this year, he has a fair amount of pears. “Some of the trees were not as affected as others. The ones that weren’t have a heavy crop,” he said.

At Just Baked, his wife adds pears to apples in pies made with and without sugar. “If you use sweet apples and sweet pears, it’s a pretty tasty pie without the added sugar that some people can’t have,” she said. She also makes an apple-pear-cranberry pie that especially popular at Thanksgiving. Pears also top her coffee cake.

When baking with pears, Kesler prefers to leave the skin on. “It gets tender in baking and it holds the pears together better,” she said. In appetizers, salads and entrees, the delicate flavor of pears can be matched with lunch meats, poultry, vegetables and greens, in addition to other fruits. Many innovative recipes using different types of pears are available at www.usapears.com, a web site operated by Pear Bureau Northwest, a non-profit organization that promotes the pears industry in Oregon and Washington, which produce about 84 percent of all fresh pears grown in the nation.

At their best, pears are sweet and aromatic, with a texture that can range from slightly crisp to buttery smooth. At their worst, they can be mushy, mealy, gritty and flavorless. Clues to their ripeness vary with each type, but in all cases, pears should be left at room temperature until fully ripened. To test for ripeness, apply gentle pressure near the base of the pear’s stem. If it yields slightly, it’s ready to eat.

By the alphabet
— A is for Anjou. Developed in Belgium, its full name is Beurre d’Anjou. The principal variety grown for the fresh market in the United States because it ships well, this green pear often sports a reddish blush. Its color does not change as it ripens.

— B is for Bartlett and Bosc. Bartlett, the most popularly consumed fresh variety, is also the one commercial growers favor for canning. Known as Williams pears in Europe, Bartletts come in green and red varieties. Green Bartletts turn yellow as they ripen. The full name of the Bosc is Beurre Bosc. Having the highest sugar content of all commercial pears, the Bosc may go from a light to deep brown. The best-tasting ones will have a yellowish undertone. Its elongated shape makes it ideal for poaching.

— C is for Comice. Originating in France, the Doyenne du Comice is a plump green pear with a red blush. When fully ripe, the green skin will take on a yellowish cast and the flesh will be lusciously melting. Often sold under the Royal Riviera trademark, it is an excellent choice to serve with cheese.

And then there are:
— Forelle, a small pear that’s low in acid and sugar and turns bright yellow with crimson freckles when ripe.

— Seckel, one of the smallest commercially grown fruits. Developed near Philadelphia in the 18th century, this reddish-brown pear is a good for poaching and in sorbet, preserves, and baked goods. Its size makes it a sensible choice for lunch boxes and children’s snacks.