An Ancient Winter Fruit Delight
By Dennis LindenFrom now until early spring, several varieties of one of the oldest cultivated fruits of the fall harvest offers the consumer a tasty snack fruit as well as a unique culinary ingredient
With a pedigree that can be traced back 3,000 years in China’s agricultural history, the Asian pear’s popularity continues to increase in this country as word of this fruit’s taste and texture adds another choice to the usual winter pear and apple varieties of the season.
Unlike the European pear, Asian pears are left to ripen on the tree and are ready to eat when firm like an apple. While there are a few early maturing varieties grown in California during the summer months, connoisseurs of this fruit prize the crops of the Pacific Northwest that are harvested from mid September through October, with a few varieties left on trees until early November. Surprisingly, when stored properly in the kind of post-harvest commercial refrigeration systems that this article will explain shortly, these fall varieties will maintain their flavor and good condition for more than six months. Once purchased, Asian pears can be stored in a home refrigerator fruit crisper for up to two months.
Asian pears can be divided into two basic groups. The Japanese types, which are the most prevalent in this country, are very round and somewhat similar to an apple in size. Chinese varieties are more pear-shaped, very similar to the more familiar European pear. An Asian pear’s very smooth, delicate skin is either a shade of green ranging from greenish yellow to bright yellow, or a russet golden brown to a brilliant copper color.
A ripe European pear has a soft, melting texture, while the fruit of the Asian pear is apple firm, extremely juicy, with a crisp, sweet-tart flavor. However, the biggest difference the consumer notices between the European and Asian pear is the price per pound. This is because the Asian varieties require intensive hand labor to grow and bring to market compared to the mechanical friendly, mass-produced volume of the European pear industry, especially in the Pacific Northwest.
Half of the blossoms on an Asian pear tree must be pinched off by hand to encourage fruit size. At harvest the fruit must be picked into special padded buckets to avoid excessive bruising. Complicating the matter, Asian pears have a sort of inherent time delay so that bruises that occurred during harvest or post-harvest handling do not become visibly apparent for a full twenty-four hours after the fact. A grower of Asian pears expects to lose a percentage of each crop in simply getting it from the tree to the shipping carton. Once packed for market, the fruit is still susceptible to bruising in transport to distribution points. This is why many varieties of Asian pears are covered in individual protective sleeves, which insures against bruising but also adds to the cost of production.
There are too many Asian pears harvested in such a short period of time to market them all at once and be profitable. So the varieties with the longest storage life are put away in cold storage to be marketed last, while varieties that have proven to have much shorter storage capabilities are shipped to market first. The special refrigeration systems necessary to support this kind of marketing based on shelf life require constant technical vigilance and experience to maintain the right mix of humidity and temperature for long term storage to be successful. The storage of perishable fruits is an art unto itself and the primary reason for the extended variety of choice available at retail that most consumers take for granted.
So you can recognize them in your local market, below are pictures and descriptions of both colors of the Japanese variety Asian pear as well as one of their Chinese cousin. Take advantage of the versatility of this fruit by introducing new flavors to your table with an unusual Asian pear slaw, poached for an elegant dessert or served as a very unique appetizer.
A round fruit about the same size as an apple with a bright yellow skin that easily bruises. They have a mildly sweet flavor and a crisp texture, similar to firm watermelon. Best served chilled, sliced for fresh fruit and cheese platters or in green salads. This variety harvests in September and remains available out of storage until March.Hosui
A medium to large fruit with golden russet skin. It is prized for its high juice content, fine texture and sweet, tangy taste. Use for cooking, canning, drying, freezing or for making a unique sauce. This variety harvests in mid September and remains available out of storage until early January.Yali
A Chinese variety that is pear shaped with a very smooth, glossy, light green skin. Its fruit is white and very juicy with a crisp texture. The Yali has an extremely high sugar content, making it excellent for baking and poaching. This variety harvests in late October and remains available out of storage until late February.