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Food in the 'Hood

Gift of the Gods: The Pear – Part I

[Editor’s Note: The writer is taking a mid-winter break this month; Part II will appear in February.]

“There is only ten minutes in the life of the pear, when it is perfect to eat.” Nineteenth century American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson captured the ephemeral quality of the pear, which endeared it to elites through the ages. In contrast to its cousin, the commonplace apple (also a member of the rose family), the pear became the special favorite of the upper orders.

Probably native to Central Asia, the pear migrated to the Mediterranean, arriving in Greece in 1000 B.C. The wild pear \– —small, gritty, and sour — was slowly domesticated. One of the “gifts of the gods,” as the poet Homer called it, the pear tree rose in a garden he depicted in the Odyssey: “[T]here grow tall trees blossoming, pear trees and pomegranates, and apple trees with bright fruit, and sweet figs, and olives in their bloom. The fruit of these trees never perisheth, neither faileth winter or summer, enduring through all the year. Evermore the West Wind blowing brings some fruits to birth and ripens others. Pear upon pear waxes old.”

The Romans, adept gardeners, were consummate cultivators of fruit. Pears, adored by the nobility, were planted in villa gardens, often lining the sides of a marble watercourse. The Romans bred a remarkably diverse crop —- the Roman naturalist Pliny refers to 35 varieties. The descendants of these trees filled the orchards of medieval Europe.

The distinctive names of the Roman pears reflect a culture exquisitely attuned to subtle differences in their produce. Color —- Onychina (onyx), Purpurea (purple) —- was the hallmark of some. Aroma set the Myrappia (myrrh) and the Laurea (laurel) apart. One, the Horderaria (barley), got its name from the season in which both fruit and grain were harvested.

Pears graced the tables of the city’s patricians, and Roman cooks developed ingenious ways of exploiting the fruit. They were dried, cooked in wine, and conserved in grape syrup. Less palatable fruit was saved for making pear cider and wine vinegar.

Pliny advised against eating the raw pear: “All kinds of pears, as an aliment, are indigestible, to persons in robust health, even; but to invalids they are forbidden as rigidly as wine.” When cooked, he noted, they were quite pleasurable: “Boiled, however, they are remarkably agreeable and wholesome . . . . All kinds of pears, too, boiled with honey, are wholesome to the stomach.”

The pear also had a curative role. The wild pear, Pliny commented, “cut in slices and hung in the air to dry . . . arrests looseness of the bowels, an effect which is equally produced by a decoction of it taken in drink.”

The Roman imprint followed the pear in its journey through Europe. Its Latin name, pirum, was adapted in other languages. The descendants of the Roman trees filled the orchards of medieval Europe. In this age, as in the ancient, the pear enjoyed an exalted status. To the aristocracy, fruit borne on lofty trees was superior to earthy vegetables like cabbage and turnips, which were best left to commoners. In a brilliant book, Cheese, Pears, and History, food historian Mario Montanari argues that the perishable pear epitomized the elegant fruit esteemed by the upper strata: “The pear is a symbol of the ephemeral, of unessential tastes and pleasures, and thus, once again, symbolic of social difference.”

Its prestigious position made the pear an ideal gift to be exchanged among the nobility. Rurizio, the Bishop of Limoges, France in the 6th century, expressed his gratitude to another gentleman with a present of 100 pears, hoping that “they do not offend his taste.” He gave another 100 to his friend’s wife.

The pear strengthened erotic bonds between lovers, Montanari points out. The poet Tomasso Campanella penned a sonnet “on the occasion of a gift of pears sent to the author by his lady which were nibbled by her teeth.” The pear itself conveyed a sexual energy, Campanella suggests. The fruit is a “cherished gift between lustful lovers.”

The image of the “partridge in a pear tree” from the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” some think, is erotically charged. It summons up medieval associations, the partridge as a representation of lust and the pear as a symbol of the phallus.

Unlike the leisure classes, the peasantry typically did not have the luxury of growing and tending to pears. When they did plant them, Montanari observes, the poor treated the pear as an economic necessity, not as a delicacy to fondle and savor. The famine of 1338 in Italy forced farmers to convert their pears to flour. To the nobleman, drying the pear to preserve it, a peasant device, defeated the fruit’s purpose. The perishable pear no longer was a precious pleasure when it had to be saved for the future.

The fruit that was so vital to social standing, however, came with considerable peril. Medical authorities had long warned of the dangers of eating raw fruit. The Greek physician Galen, whose pronouncements influenced medieval opinion, was dismissive of fruit’s culinary rewards: “We never eat them for food, but only as a medication.” People worried that fruit might bring on headaches, indigestion, and fever. Pears were categorized as “cold” and “dry,” a mixture of earth and water, as Galen put it.

The aristocracy, then, faced a dilemma. If they were to enjoy the prized pear, they had to take precautions. To counter its coldness, the pear, it was believed, must be cooked. In addition, for the best digestive benefit, the pear should conclude the meal.

An accompaniment of wine, experts claimed, could reduce the ill effects of the pear. Castor Durante de Gualdo asserted that pears are “less harmful eaten with a lot of sugar on top, along with a flavorful full-bodied wine, or actually cooked in wine, with sugar, cinnamon.” The Salerno School of Medicine, a powerful institution, went even further. “Without wine, pears are poison.”

The stewardship of court and church elevated the pear during medieval times. Cultivated in castles, villas, and monastery gardens, pears proliferated and new varieties multiplied. In France, where pears had most likely traveled with the Roman conquerors, planting the fruit was vigorously promoted. Charlemagne, the ruler of the Franks in the 9th century, ordered that a wide spectrum of pears be planted on the royal estates: “Plant pear trees, whose products because of pleasant flavor could be eaten, those which will furnish fruits for cooking, and, finally, those which mature late to serve for use in winter.”

Monks devotedly tended to their fruit trees and cultured varieties which would be named for their monasteries. English fathers bred the Warden pear, the preeminent pear for pies and pastries. Its name may have come from the Anglo-Saxon “to keep and preserve.” Guests at King Henry IV’s wedding feasted on Warden pears in syrup. The dish was served along with quail, venison, sturgeon, and other elegant foods.

The wealth of flavors, colors, aromas, and shapes the pear was capable of producing made it the darling of the aristocracy. De Serres, the 17th century French horticulturist, urged that orchards be planted to display these assets: “Pears are found round, long . . . blunt, small, and large. Gold, silver, vermillon, and satin green are found among the pears. Sugar, honey, cinnamon, clove, flavor them. They smell of musk, amber, and chive.”

Royal sponsorship gave the pear luster. King Louis XI, a passionate fruit enthusiast, hoped that the fruit would save him from eczema and other ailments. The king, the story goes, summoned Francis of Paola, a holy Italian hermit, to work another medical miracle. Francis’s cure was a small pear tree, which he asked the monarch to care for until it fruited. Tending to the tree, the holy man thought, would soothe the king’s fevered mind, the root of his sickness. The king hoped that if pears sprang up by St. Martin’s Day, he could be treated to a pear compote, a sweet flavored with honey and rosewater that was reputed to alleviate digestive disorders. The monarch waited impatiently but he died before he could sample any pears. The tree Francis bequeathed bore a variety known as the Bon Chrétien, or “Good Christian,” a famous type said to be the ancestor of the American Bartlett.

Eating an occasional pear, each of which tasted more or less alike, was not enough to satisfy the aristocracy. Lengthening the pear season and producing more distinctive varieties would meet these needs. Horticulturists set out to achieve this objective. Jean de la Quintine, master gardener for King Louis XIV, was able to marshal 500 species of pears for the monarch, enough for his patron to delight in a different one every day.

Especially juicy pears were reserved for the king. One that Louis XIV was enamored of was named Ah! Mon Dieu, after the words the king supposedly uttered after eating one.

Next month Part II will continue with tales of English perry, a popular pear cider, the rise of the beurée (buttery pear) in Belgium, and the story of “pear mania” in the U.S.

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Pear Purveyors

At the Dupont Farmers Market (Sunday mornings to 1 pm on 20th St. bet. Mass. Ave. & Q St., NW), I enjoyed the crisp taste of a Bosc pear, a fruit descended from a Belgian variety, at the Twin Springs Fruit Farm stand. Black Rock Orchard has been carrying Asian pears, the small, squat Seckel pear, and is selling pear cider.

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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