A commercial cold-war, a genetic disadvantage, and the world’s most durable fruit.
Pears are a decent snack. They are sweet, crunchy, grainy, and generally quite appetising. This wasn’t always the case. In the Middle Ages pears were a tough, grainy, and sour fruit. They were mainly used for cooking, either stewed or baked and flavoured in honey and sweet wine, in an attempt to make them vaguely edible. How, then, did this clearly unappealing fruit become the easily available pear we know and love? Turns out, the answer is quite dramatic.
The pear, Pyrus communis, the fifth most widely produced fruit in the world, originated in China and Asia Minor, but soon spread westwards. The palace of Alcinous had ‘pear upon pear waxing ripe’, according to the Homeric Odyssey (7.120), one of ‘the glorious gifts of the gods’ bestowed upon the king of the Phaeacians. The Romans almost certainly introduced cultivated pears to western Europe, including Britain. By the first century BC the Romans, using propagation methods not dissimilar to those deployed today, had more than forty cultivars while a century later Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia, detailed all the known varieties.
As mentioned before none of these cultivars were very appetising. It took nearly two thousand years to get a delicious pear. The pear's transformation came in the 17th century thanks to the royal horticulturist, Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie. He was a lawyer, gardener, and director of the king’s own vegetable and fruit garden. He had so advanced the cultivation of the pear that it was deemed a fruit worthy to grace the table of Louis XIV. Many of the varieties he grew would seem unfamiliar to us, some so small that they hung like a bunch of grapes while others were gigantic.
Amongst Quintinie’s creations was an edible, buttery variety of pear. Quintinie was an enthusiastic fan, writing in 1661 that ‘among all the fruits in this place [Versailles], nature does not show anything so beautiful nor so noble as this pear. It is pear that makes the greatest honour on the tables’. Sadly, his variety was beyond the pocket of all but the rich.
That the pear became more affordable was due in no small part to the efforts of the Belgian plant breeder, Jean-Baptiste Van Mons(1765-1842). Mons was the most prolific pear breeder ever, creating over 40 varieties. His mission was to develop pears that produced a good yield and were hardy, but also juicy, soft and fragrant, much like the breed that Quintinie had created. One property of the Quintinie pear he was interested in was the fact that it was buttery. This can be seen by the fact that he put the word beurre—French for butter—in the name of some of his varieties.
He worked for fifty-one years until his death in 1842 devoted his life and much of his money to improving the fruit. Among his innovations were the Bosc and d’Anjou cultivars. Van Mons was very generous with his discoveries, sending research and even seedlings to many other breeders, including some in America.
That last gesture, sending pears to America, would prove to be somewhat disastrous for European cultivators.
The first recorded instance of pear cultivation in the New World was in New England in 1629 from seeds brought over by settlers. While European varieties grew well in North America, the greater genetic variability of the American pears meant that they did not thrive in European soil.
Ironically, the seeds of the pear crisis in Europe were sown when a British schoolmaster from Aldermaston, John Stair, sometime between 1765 and 1770, produced a new variety of pear. Known as the Stair or Aldermaston Pear, it became the Williams Pear when the eponymous nurseryman acquired the variety.
James Carter introduced it to America in 1799, planting some trees on Thomas Brewer’s estate in Roxbury, Massachusetts. When Enoch Bartlett bought the estate, it had another name change, and the Bartlett Pear proved so popular that it became one of the principal varieties grown in North America.
The development of the railways and refrigerated steamships meant that North American produce could easily be exported to Britain and Europe, and such was the volume of fruit produced that a Foreign Fruit Exchange was created in Covent Garden Market in 1887. This was bad news for European cultivators. There was no way to grow the Bartlett or any similar North American pear on European soil.
Sensing the threat to their livelihoods and determined to fight back, British pear growers decided to select one main variety suitable for domestic conditions and large-scale production. The problem was determining which one. A group of head gardeners drew up a shortlist of favoured pears, but no consensus was forthcoming.
Help, though, was on hand from another Belgian grower, Leo Leclerc. Several decades earlier he had developed a pear, described by Thomas Hogg in his Fruit Manual (1860) as ‘flesh white, half-melting or crisp, juicy, sweet, and perfumed. An excellent stewing pear, which in some seasons is half-melting, and is in use from January to June’. It was this pear, the Leon Leclerc de Laval, that Thomas Frances Rivers from Sawbridgeworth used as the female parent for a new pear he developed at his nursery in 1884. The male parent of Rivers’ pear is unknown, but it did what it had to nonetheless.
The pear was an instant success, winning the first prize in October 1885 at the National Pear Conference held in Chiswick, at the Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens. A new cultivar, described as a mid-season dessert pear, also won first prize at the Apple and Pear Conference of 1888, where the vexed question of which pear to select to meet the American challenge was still being aired.
Heavy rain may have kept the crowds away, but Rivers’ success, and his influence as chairman of the Conference that year, resolved the committee’s dilemma. His pear’s characteristics, self-fertile, tasty, scab resistant, a heavy cropper and suitable for damp and cool conditions, made it ideal for reviving the British fruit growers’ fortunes. Having decided which variety of pear to grow, coming up with an imaginative name for it proved far too challenging. As a result, Rivers’ pear was simply known as a Conference after the conference at which it was selected.
While there may be over five hundred varieties of pear, according to the DEFRA National Fruit Collection, the odds are that the British pear you will see on the shelves will be a Conference, which, at 15,600 tonnes in 2020, accounted for over 90% of the UK’s commercial pear production. It is for all intents and purposes a super-pear, the pear being remarkably better than other varieties.
For one, it is slightly larger than other varieties, the Conference has a distinctive elongated bottle shape and a thick greenish-brown skin that attains a yellowish hue as it ripens. The brown patches on its skin, which can seem disconcerting to the eye, are known as russets and are not only edible but give the fruit a delicious nutty flavour. Russeting is generally caused by moisture on the fruit’s skin as it grows.
Finally, it has a long storage life and large yield, if kept at temperatures of around minus one degree Centigrade. Gardeners will find that they will last well into January if they are put in a refrigerator. Fruiting when it is around three years old, a year earlier, on average, than its rivals, the Conference reaches maximum cropping potential at around the six-year mark. Disease free, it can have a productive life of around 35 to forty years, although they will live for much longer. It is easy to see why the Conference has dominated the market.
What started as the hobby of an idiosyncratic French aristocrat turned into a sort of fruit-trade cold-war, but ultimately gave us our delicious grainy, crunchy, perhaps even buttery, russeted Conference pear that we grab off our supermarket shelves for a pittance. Having been truly embraced by British culture, it has now branched out to be grown in other countries, including Belgium. Thomas Rivers would have appreciated the irony.
Part of the Conference’s success is that it can cater to different tastes. Unlike most other pears, it can be eaten when slightly unripe as well as when fully ripe—and its taste and characteristics change between the two stages of ripeness. Unripe, this pear’s flesh is white and crunchy, with a slightly acidic taste, making it ideal for cooking as it keeps its shape reasonably well. Left in the fruit bowl for a couple of days to ripen, the flesh turns to a slightly yellowish colour, and is soft, juicy, and sweet.
Which one is best? It depends on your preference. The pear has finally begun catering to the case of “each to their own tastes”—or chacun à son goût, as they’d say in Belgium.