When the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote about pears during the time of Nero in the first century, he identified some 40 varieties. Today, the National Clonal Germoplasm Repository genebank, in Corvallis, Oregon, lists hundreds of types of pears in its collection, many of which date back over 100 years. Worldwide, it is estimated that there are more than 3,000 cultivated varieties of pears.
So why is it that, while heirloom tomatoes, apples, and even beans have rolled into supermarkets over the past few years, the pear selection remains complacently limited to Bartlett, Bosc, Anjou, Comice, and perhaps the occasional Seckel?
The truth, says rare-fruit expert C. Todd Kennedy, is that those are heirloom pears. The varieties we see in stores come from seed stocks that are at least a century old, although most have gone by several different names (the Bartlett, for example, is thought by some to be the same pear that Pliny called the Crustuminum, a name that perhaps outlived its marketability). But the pear, alas, is not a very “straightforward” fruit, says Kennedy. “It is not a fruit that you can just bite into off the tree,” he explains. “It requires at least two weeks of cold storage before it can then be taken out and ripened up over a period of perhaps five more days.”
Because of these fastidious conditions, says Kennedy, pears are “essentially the fruit of France, not of the United States.” So how does one find obscure pears such as Rousselet de Reims, Spina Carpi, Belle Lucrative, and White Doyenne, other than buying a ticket to Europe? It can be a bit of a treasure hunt. If you live in the Boston area, you can find the rare, and reportedly tasty, Dana Hovey pear growing at the Edward Everett Square Historic Orchard. If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can sample the White Doyenne at the annual autumn heritage fruit tasting at the historic Filoli estate in early October. Grocery chains such as Whole Foods will sometimes stock harder-to-find varieties such as the juicy little Forelle or the festive bright-red Starkrimson. And organic farms often maintain small orchards.
Or, if you’ve got the time, you could grow your own. Pear cultivation is a career for the long-suffering: It takes at least 20 years for a pear seedling to bear its first fruit. “Nobody goes into the pear-breeding business; they will never see the results,” says Kennedy. A great source for mature trees on the East Coast is Fedco Seeds. On the West Coast, try Trees of Antiquity or Raintree Nursery. The North American Fruit Explorers offers forums and support.