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Beloved of birds and bees, prized by Ottoman sultans and Bourbon kings, pears are a particular joy eaten ripe from the tree. But cooking coaxes the flavour out of even those mass-market varieties grown for a long shelf life and ripened in cold storage
The celebrated French herbalist Maurice Mességué calls the pear tree “happiness itself” in his 1970s book Mon Herbier de Santé, comparing the soft lines of the luscious fruit to those of a beautiful woman. And it is not only we humans who find pears so appealing. In spring, bees swarm to the white blossoms to collect pollen. The caterpillars that feed on the leaves will metamorphose into butterflies that feed on the juices of overripe, fallen fruit. Bears can’t resist feasting on them. I even have a memory, from long ago, of a tortoise indulging in a pear that had fallen from a tree in our garden. I can never forget the expression of relish, eyes closed, juice dripping from its chin.
The pear belongs to the Rosaceae family and, like its cousin the apple, originated in the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains – literally, the Heavenly Mountains – in Central Asia, where the forests of modern Kyrgyzstan still harbour a wide range of wild fruit and nuts believed to be the ancestors of all domesticated species.
Long confined to the orchards of eastern Asia, the Asian pear, Pyrus pyrifolia, more commonly known by its Japanese name, nashi, is a crunchy, spherical fruit similar to an apple that only recently made the journey west. By contrast, the countless varieties of common European pear, Pyrus communis, with its curvaceous, tapering form and soft, fragrant flesh – the product of millennia of cross-pollination by nature and the hand of man – reached the West long ago.
Since time immemorial pears have been part of the human diet, whether gathered wild or cultivated, eaten fresh or dried and stored for winter. Their abundance is evident from charred wild pears and pips unearthed at Neolithic sites in Switzerland and recently at Vinča in Serbia, on the banks of the Danube, one of the largest settlements in prehistoric Europe.
Turkey is rich in wild pears. The late Polish botanist Kazimierz Browicz recorded five species endemic to Anatolia, ranging from Pyrus anatolica, which grows abundantly around Uşak in the west, to Pyrus hakkarica in Hakkari on Anatolia’s eastern frontier.
Known as ahlat, wild pears are collected in Anatolia to this day and sold fresh at village markets. Some of these hard, tart pears are kept in storage, a process known as bletting, used also for the naturally acidic medlar, which turns them mellow and sweet. Others are cored and threaded on string, like pear necklaces, and hung out to dry, to be soaked and eaten as compotes in winter, like dried apricots and prunes.
A coarse flour obtained by pounding vitamin-rich dried pears is added to bread dough, or combined with pekmez (grape molasses) to make a gruel. Local customs such as these must have filtered down through the ages from a prehistoric diet. Wild pear trees growing singly or in small groups on the edges of forests are also valued as grafting rootstock for propagating the delicious cultivars that grace our tables.
The pear was most probably first domesticated in its Asian homeland, long before it was anything but wild food in the West. The Turkish name, armut, is shared today by all the nations of Central Asia, with but slight variations – armıt in Turkestan, almurut in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, almurt in Kazakhstan and armud in Azerbaijan. The fruit was called armut even when the lexicographer Mahmud al Kasgarî, who lived in the Tarım Basin in old Turkestan (now China), compiled his mammoth dictionary of Turkic languages, Dīwān Lughāt al-Turk, in 1070. Such was the pear culture at the time that there was a long-forgotten verb – armutlanmak – used to describe a pear tree beginning to fruit. How far back, one wonders, does that go?
Two centuries later, in the reign of Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan, Marco Polo reports on the opulence of the great city of Kinsay, modern Hangchow in China, where “markets make a daily display of every kind of vegetable and fruit… in particular, certain pears of enormous size, weighing as much as ten pounds apiece, the pulp of which is white and fragrant like a confection”.
By the 17th century the orchards of Malatya in southeast Anatolia were producing a delectable pear known as göksulu that weighed a mere three pounds (1.4kg). It was one of some 80 varieties grown in the region, according to another renowned traveller, the Ottoman courtier Evliya Çelebi, who also mentioned an exceptional pear from Beypazarı, not far from Ankara, a round green fruit “as succulent and tasty as sugar helva”. He saw large quantities packed in boxes, neatly wrapped in raw cotton, bound for Istanbul.
Imperial Bursa, too, had a rich pear heritage, with no fewer than 40 varieties. There Evliya made particular mention of the small town of Armutlu, on the Sea of Marmara, not far from Bursa, which he described as crammed “from hill to plain” with pear orchards, hence the town’s name – armutlu is, loosely, “pear country”. Trabzon, Amasra and Ladik, on the Black Sea, all used to produce fine, juicy pears with descriptive names, including the beyarmudu (pear of the lords, or lord of the pears), which had both early and winter cultivars. This variety travelled as far as the kitchen gardens of the Sun King, Louis XIV.
His gardener, Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, who created the potager du roi at Versailles, knowing of his sovereign’s fondness for pears, included the noble beyarmudu in his collection of 50 varieties. La Quintinie, an intellectual aristocrat and horticultural genius, took pride in decorating the royal table with countless baskets of fresh fruit, both seasonal and forced. It was de rigueur at the Sun King’s court to finish a meal with fresh fruit. In his manual Instruction pour les jardins fruitiers et potagers, published after his death in 1688, he listed 24 early and late varieties of “bergamots” (derived from the Turkish beyarmudu), all favourites of the king. Curiously, there is no connection with the bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia), the citrus fruit known as bergamot in both English and Turkish (beyarmudu simply returned to Turkish in a corrupted form). Thanks to La Quintinie, France became a country of pears in the 17th century.
The fashion soon spread to neighbouring countries. Buttery, white-fleshed varieties such as autumn bergamot, York bergamot and French bergamot became known in England. Likewise, the Italian bergamotta became Osterbergamotte, Schweizerbergamotte, Donauers Bergamotte or Deutsche Nationalbergamotte, to list just a few of the German names of these melting, voluptuously shaped (bergamottenförmig) pears.
Just as European aristocrats of the 17th and 18th centuries developed an interest in horticulture, so Ottoman grandees were obsessed with growing the largest vegetable, the tastiest fruit, the perfect flower. The Yemiş Odası, or Fruit Room, in Topkapı Palace – the private reading room of Ahmed III – is painted from ceiling to skirting with murals of fruits and flowers. Neat piles of elongated pyriform pears are seen next to figs, peaches and apricots.
New cultivars, often remembered by their grower’s name, would include the Mustabey armudu (Mustafa Bey pear), dedicated to the poet and court musician Buhurîzade Mustafa Efendi, who lived in Istanbul in the same era. His pen name, İtrî, or Fragrant, derives from his scented garden. The old cultivars, propagated to perfection though selection or grafting for five centuries by Ottoman gardeners, disappeared one by one, like the imperial orchards themselves.
Today the town of Armutlu, whose dense pear orchards were so admired by Evliya, is a seaside conurbation. Alas, we have no idea of the colour, shape, size or flavour of the precious sultanic sultanî, the Turkish Türkî, the translucent sabunî or the sugar-sweet şekerî. However, the Sea of Marmara is still a centre of pear production, even if crops tend to be imported hybrids, as demanded by global markets, including the apple-like Asian pear, nashi, which finally made the journey across Asia.
Bursa’s orchards produce some 170,000 tons of pears each year, among them a few of the old cultivars, such as the early akça, a small pear with delicate, whitish peel and fragrant flesh. Another sought-after early variety is Haziran Güzeli, June Beauty, a small, sweet, greenish fruit with rosy cheeks. The best-known old variety, the roundish, green Ankara armudu, which takes its name from the capital, is exceptionally sweettasting if allowed to ripen on the branch. Generally grafted onto wild pears and quite resilient, it is harvested in late autumn and has a shelf life that lasts through the winter months, qualities that make it commercially profitable and are possibly the secret of its survival.
These must surely be the juicy, helva-like pears in Beypazarı praised by Evliya in the 17th century that were sent in boxes to Istanbul. In 1717 the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort also praised the “orchards and kitchen-gardens” of Beypazarı in A Voyage into the Levant: “Hence come those excellent Pears sold at Constantinople, by the name of Angora Pears.” Unfortunately, when he was there in early November, “they were very backward” and he “had not the good fortune to taste them”. A newcomer to the market stalls of Istanbul is the Deveci pear, a fruit that makes both farmers and buyers happy. It can be large, sometimes very large.
The story of this toothsome pear goes back to a spring morning in 1960 when a Black Sea farmer, Lütfi Deveci, stumbled on a pear in the undergrowth while out shooting. He was amazed, as other fruit trees were just blossoming, but here was a firm, fully developed fruit lying on the ground. Hunting around for the tree, he found it still bearing a few pears, and took cuttings, which he grafted onto pear trees of Italian and French origin in his own garden. The result was a success story. Because this pear grows abundantly, keeps for a long time and is resistant to frost and cold storage, it is clearly very profitable. In today’s commercial world, the survival of pear varieties is dictated by shelf life. Unlike apples, pears won’t keep when ripe, so even naturally sweet types are bletted on a grand scale, harvested unripe and left to ripen in cold storage.
But forget genetically modified supermarket products. The delicate, melting texture of a real pear from the garden, ripened on the branch, is a divine experience, and it can be a visual feast, with an alluring pear shape (armudî in old Turkish), uplifting colour and becoming blush. Mességué was right. As his compatriot La Quintinie said three centuries ago, “Among all the fruits Nature does not show anything so beautiful nor so noble as a pear.”
Pears with Ice Cream and Chocolate Sauce
2 large pears of similar size
2 glasses water
1 glass sugar
1 tablespoon butter
About 75g dark chocolate
Vanilla ice cream
1 tablespoon pistachio nuts, ground or chopped
Jean Conil, chef to celebrities, culinary correspondent for the Académie Culinaire de France, and former maître de cuisine to Fortnum & Mason, lists this dish in his 1953 cookery book, Haute Cuisine – a creation with elaborate garnishes of spun sugar, cherries, etc, that he calls Sultane.He gives no recipe, but this humble version is still fit for a sultan.
1 Peel and halve the pears lengthways and neatly remove the core with a sharp knife, as well as the stalk and calyx.
2 Bring the water and sugar to a gentle boil, add the pears, lower the heat and poach until tender and slightly translucent. Leave to cool and put in the fridge to chill.
3.When serving, melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the chocolate with a tablespoon or so of water and stir over a low heat until melted. Keep warm.
4.Place each pear half, cut side up, on a plate, and drizzle the cooking syrup over.
5.Spoon ice cream generously over the pears, pour the chocolate sauce over without delay, and garnish with the pistachios.
Other recipes in this issue: Armut Kompostosu (Poached Pears), Armutlu Kek (Pear Cake), Armut Turşusu (Spiced Pickled Pears), *Armut Sirkesiv (Pear Vinegar)
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