Mr Fluttergrub’s Garden: Culinary pears

Mar 19, 2024

In the UK, almost uniquely compared to other countries, we divide apples into two categories: eaters and cookers. But we don’t tend to do the same with pears.

Of course, it is possible to use any variety of pear for cooking, including the ubiquitous Conference. If you search the Web for ideas on how to use pears in the kitchen you’ll find no end of sites. Where varieties are recommended for specific purposes, such as poaching or baking, it is usually the types offered by supermarkets such as the aforementioned Conference or the increasingly popular Anjou. What most websites overlook, and what doesn’t seem to be appreciated more widely here in the UK and elsewhere, is that there exists a whole class of pears that are only suited to cooking. These, to use the term preferred by orchardists, are the so-called culinary pears.

Should you be unfamiliar with orchard speak, a culinary pear is one that must be cooked or otherwise processed to be truly edible. Such pears will never ripen or soften, remaining hard throughout their season of use. Trying to eat them fresh will end in disappointment. The texture will be coarse and grainy and the flavour poor if not acrid. There’s even a risk of dental damage. It is only after cooking that these pears become soft enough to eat and develop their full flavour.

Sometimes also collectively referred to as ‘Warden Pears’, culinary pears have their origins far back in the pomological past, predating most eating or dessert pears. The latter frequently stem from breeding work carried out in France and the Low Countries between the 17th and 19th centuries whereas culinary pears often have more obscure and local roots.

Perhaps the commonest culinary pear in the UK, and possibly the most ancient, is Black Worcester. The provenance of this variety is unclear but it is closely associated with the city and county of that name and features on the latter’s coat of arms. The fruit is large, about 80mm long and weighs up to 250 grams. Skin colour is an appealing reddish brown rather than black. More detail and a photo can be found on Wikipedia here. I don’t yet have Black Worcester in the orchard, but another member of our small scale local fruit growing coop has several trees. He reports it crops well, despite being well over a hundred miles north of its supposed ancestral home.

The only other culinary pear variety seen with any frequency in the UK, almost always in old or hobby orchards, is the variety Catillac. Still listed for sale by a few fruit tree nurseries and often considered superior to Black Worcester in quality, it originates in France but was first recorded here as long ago as the late 17th century. It produces a chunkier, more bulbous, fruit than Black Worcester. It’s not as well coloured, having a greenish yellow skin with a pale pinkish flush. I’ve two Catillac trees, both of which are fairly weak growers and shy croppers. Perhaps this is because of their situation in less favourable spots on some of my heavier soil. It is only when cooked that Catillac appeals, the flesh taking on a pinkish tinge with a delicate flavour, especially if baked.

St. Remy at about eight years old in early March after pruning. Already a strong and spreading grower it’s again carrying a good show of fruit buds.

Because of Catillac’s reluctance to produce proper crops, eight years ago I planted a different culinary variety: St. Remy. This is a relatively rare pear of unknown European origin only available from one or two nurseries in the UK. I didn’t have high hopes given the experience with Catillac. It takes quite a few years for pears to get into their cropping stride, hence the old adage, ‘plant pears for your heirs’, so I thought it might be a decade or more before there was much fruit. I shouldn’t have fretted. St. Remy has exceeded all expectations. It grew away vigorously, almost too strongly, outpacing neighbouring trees.

Over the last two years it’s begun cropping, carrying heavy crops of more than a hundred fruits each season. When picked it looks somewhat like Catillac, if a bit less chunky; cooked it’s similar too – although perhaps better poached than baked and not quite as delicately flavoured. Its greatest asset though is that it keeps. It’s now early March but there are still quite a few St. Remy in the store.

Some of the stored St. Remy. The fruit turns golden yellow after months of storage but the flesh will remain firm.

There are few other culinary pears that can be obtained from UK nurseries. One is Geiser Wildeman and another is Pitmaston Duchess, which is usually classed as ‘dual purpose’, that is, it’s also edible uncooked. I’ve also read that the striped novelty variety Humbug cooks well. I hope so because it has absolutely nothing to recommend it as a dessert type.

One final point to make in this plug for culinary pears is that almost all these varieties, not just St. Remy, store well. For a home grower, or indeed a small scale fruit producer looking to sell pears over the longest possible season, this is the biggest advantage. Unlike most other pears they’ll not catch you out by going from unripe to overripe, or ‘sleepy’ ​[orchardist parlance​] in the blink of an eye. All you need when storing is a dry, frost free and rodent proof shed. It’s the long keeping attributes of culinary pears that prompts my singing of their praises at this time of year, months after the fruit was picked from the trees. Dessert home grown pears are a memory, the last eaten just before the New Year. In a few weeks the last of the apples – eaters and cookers – will have been used yet St. Remy should still be good for quite a few more weeks, hopefully into mid-April.

Maybe you have experience of growing culinary pears? If so, we’d love to hear about it so we can share your knowledge on the WWOOF UK grapevine. Email us: editor@wwoof.org.uk

Enjoyed reading Mr Fluttergrub’s Garden? We have a bountiful collection of articles by our green fingered friend so make sure you search for the rest of them here.

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