Pears are often lumped in with apples when English fruit is discussed, but the pear is a distinct and memorable fruit, with a long and proud history of its own.
Originally grown in the Caucasus, it was first cultivated as long as 4000 years ago. The pear was popular with both Ancient Greeks and Romans, who enjoyed it for its flavour and reputed medicinal properties. It was also thought to have aphrodisiac qualities and was consecrated to the Goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
The process by which the pear came to England is not certain, but it was most likely brought here by the Romans, and by the time of the Domesday Book in the late 11th century, there was evidence of old pear trees in the English countryside. In the early days, it seems they were mainly used for cooking rather than eaten raw, but as with many other aspects of agriculture, the pear received new attention from the Victorians, who popularised existing varieties and created new ones. The result is that there are now believed to be more than 1,000 varieties of pear in the world, 700 of which have been developed in the UK, the vast majority of those in England.
So whether you like to eat your pears raw, stew them for dessert or enjoy the unique taste of pear cider or perry, here are just some of the most popular of English pear varieties.
Williams Bon Chretien
This variety of pear is also known as the Bartlett pear in the US, and it dates back to 1765, when it was first discovered at Aldermaston, Berkshire. It was first solid commercially by Richard Williams of Turnham Green near London, who gave it its name officially in 1814.
One of oldest pear varieties in England, it is dumpy looking fruit, with a slight narrowing at the neck and is larger than most pears. It also turns an attractive golden colour when ripe. The flesh is white and the taste is sweet, with a slight element of musk in the fragrance. The Williams is one of the best cooking pears around and in fact provide the majority of the world production of tinned pears.
Williams Bon Chretien
This pear is so famous in Worcestershire, where perry was first made, that it has been incorporated into the heraldry of the county. This is a large cooking pear with rough, dark skin and russet patches. It is also sometimes known as the Warden Pear as it was first recorded as being grown in the Abbey of Warden in Bedfordshire.
The Black Worcester is an excellent stewing fruit, famous for its use in pies or just baked as a dessert. In fact, this pear was so well known that it earned a mention in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and Bedford’s Michaelmas Fair was famous for its Baked Wardens.
A variety best suited to eating over winter, as it remains fresh for several weeks, so if picked in October, it can be stored well into January. It is a bulbous, almost circular shape, and may not be the most attractive of fruits. Much of the skin has a light brown colour, though this turns more yellow when it is fully ripe. A smaller than average fruit, it has creamy flesh and lots of sweetness. It also offers plenty of flavour, particularly if it has been grown in a sheltered, sunny position.
One of the most popular of the pears grown in England, it was discovered in 1884 by T. Francis Rivers of Sawbridgeworth but earned its name in 1895 at the British Pear Conference.
The shape is instantly recognisable, like a cone, and the fruit is larger than most pears. It may have a number of light brown patches, although this depends on how wet the growing season has been. The skin has a dark green background, but turns yellow when ripe, and this pear has the unusual quality of being edible just before it is fully ripe, when it offers crunch and bite. When fully ripe, the Conference pear is soft and juicy, and one of this pear’s advantages is that it keeps for a long time if it is stored at a cool temperature.
This variety is a cross between the Conference and Doyenne Du Comice pears, and is a large fruit, with a long thin neck and a bulbous lower half. When it ripens, it develops into a light green-yellow-brown, sometimes with a pink flush, or with some russet tints. Its dark glossy leaves and pure white flowers make this an attractive fruit to grow, and it tastes as good as it looks, with plenty of aroma, and a smooth, not rough texture, that packs in plenty of juice.
Another cross variety, this time between Beurre Superfin and Williams, this variety combines the delicious taste and texture of the Beurre Superfin with the ability of the Williams to survive in our climate. The result is a versatile and delicious pear, grown all over England.
It is one of the newer varieties of pear, having been identified as a potential commercial crop in 1938, but not fully released until 1974, when it earned its name. This is a slightly smaller than average fruit with a conical shape and a fairly thick neck. The skin is smooth and thin without any hint of russet, and it has a pleasant green and yellow colour, with a slight pink tinge to it. The Beth has a distinctive taste, making it similar to the traditional French pear, offering smooth, melting flesh, sweetness and juice and with very little crunchy texture.