For example, pears! Found on the fb group Ziraat:
“Diversity needs to be understood as a primary expression of beauty, and also, therefore, as one of the primary values of Spirit in an evolutionary universe.” – Bruce Sanguin.
The colorful cast of characters pictured here represent but a teensy slice of the European pear diversity on offer at the Home Orchard Society’s All About Fruit Show in Canby, OR, this weekend. As the provenance of these varieties suggest [top row, L to R: Hall (CA), Martin Sec (France), White Doyenne (France), Cascade Red (OR), Bergamotte Sageret (France), General Galliene (France), Helmershus Roda (Sweden), Batjarka (Serbia). Bottom row, L to R: Porporata (Italy), Le Lectier (France), Jules d’Airolles (Belgium), Pound (England), US 309 (MD), Beurre Madame Henre Lamy (France), Docteur Desportes (France)] our ready access to over 1,000 named cultivars from the world’s most globally-diverse pear collection – the USDA’s pear repository in Corvallis – not only significantly shapes tasting sessions such as this (the largest of its kind in the country) but the extraordinary reach of our local propagation efforts. I’ve been blessed to spend countless hours walking the trees in the Corvallis repository through the years, studying, tasting, falling in love, and cutting scion.
I confess. European pears were the first tree-fruit I became smitten with. Hmm, perhaps the Kabbalist in me powerfully senses the divine spark liberated in the flesh-act of eating a perfectly-ripened Beurre or, as Oliver Reed puts it, “You get so weak from eating pears that you fall down, and then they come and take you away on a stretcher.”
I am very taken by the larger eco-cultural narrative peculiar to pear culture. What do I mean? Until 100-150 years ago, a great array of dessert and long-keeping culinary pears reflecting a glorious diversity of tastes, textures, colors, shapes, aromas, maturities and types, were commonly eaten wherever pears could be grown. Now, a mere six pear varieties account for the vast majority of commercially-grown pears in this country with but one, Bartlett, accounting for most of those.
Why this catastrophic loss in diversity? In a nutshell, the very qualities which until quite recently saw pears commonly venerated as ‘the fruit of fruits’, fly wholeheartedly in the face of fundamental economic imperatives dictating the evolution of industrial food systems. From the outset, the finest eating pears in our midst – the classic, buttery varieties emerging out of 18th Century Europe – weren’t developed by professional plant breeders with an eye to market production but, rather, by a cult of amateur horticulturalists (Belgian, in particular) for exquisite taste and texture and, as the picture here visually confirms, myriad, breathtaking diversity. As such, pears are more varied in size, shape, texture, flavor and yes, behavior, than other hardy tree-fruits, a heterogenous individuality and non-conformity which glaringly contradict the commoditized mechanics of capitalist diktat. Crucially, pears are difficult to harvest, store and distribute as a commercial crop, especially in relation to apples – the fruit they most closely ‘compete with’.
With the inexorable march of global capitalism, the results have been dismally predictable. Large-scale agribusiness has narrowed its commercial seal of approval to a tiny handful of pears suitable to mono-cultural production, highly-technical and scientifically-sophisticated post-harvest storage protocols, and year-round global distribution. Wherever pears were traditionally farmed, a dizzying array of locally-available choices has now been reduced to a tiny, predictable cluster of supermarket-suited varieties. Bluntly put, we have a experienced a greater loss of diversity in pear culture, than in any other tree fruit or nut crop and with it, the aesthetic cost to humankind, our gardens and farms has been staggering.
Meanwhile, grassroots fruit enthusiasts continue to press on with efforts to recover the light of beauty from the contagion of an economic-value system which makes the destruction of eco-cultural diversity foundational to its raison d’etre. In this regard, I sometimes wonder if our ready local access to the most globally-diverse collection of pears on this planet, and our clear sense of the palpable connection between beauty, biodiversity, and the deep sanity of an aesthetic approach to cultural stewardship which transcends the dollar-zombie strictures and philistinic lunacy intrinsic to hypercapitalism’s past and furtherance, makes us extraordinarily well-placed to return beautiful sanity to the world. Where Bruce Sanguin suggests “The loss of diversity is a loss of divine radiance from the earth,” then what does the rebirth of a rich and vital local pear culture fully imply?
The enormous pear occupying center-stage in this photograph is the Pound pear, an ancient variety reputedly grown as far back as Roman times. Most fruits of this variety weigh two or more pounds and gigantic four-pound pears are fairly common. Pound is categorically not a dessert pear, rather a culinary or Warden pear, an ancient category of pear that predates dessert pears.
Prior to the advent of refridgeration, culinary pears were mainstays of Occidental food cultures. Unlike culinary apples, which are hard and tart but usually taste passable, most culinary pears are hard, coarse and relatively tasteless or astringent until cooked –they don’t soften up on their own and need to be baked. Once cooked, however, they are transformed into spectacular foods. (In Old England, Pound pears were baked whole, wrapped in pastry crusts.)
Because culinary pears stay hard, they also keep a long long time – often through until May or April of the year following harvest, without refridgeration – a very useful trait where most dessert pears are extraordinarily short-lived relative to, say, apples. For almost a decade now I have been researching culinary pears, a class of pear which has almost completely disappeared from gardens, farms and kitchens upon our shores and elsewhere, and which I believe may yet play a key role returning “the fruit of fruits” to a defining place in local gardens and upon homestead winter-tables. I suspect it will take me another 15-20 years to get a proper handle on how to best locally grow, harvest, store and eat the key culinary varieties I am currently experimenting with.