I have a confession to make. Not a very consequential one in the scheme of things, but one that surprises me nonetheless, and that I feel strangely guilty about. Here it is: I like Asian pears more than apples.
OK, I said it. The reason it is so surprising to me, and why I feel hesitant to admit it to myself, is that I have been an apple lover all my life. I was the kid who always had an apple in his lunchbox, and was actually happy about it. I’ve always been an “apple a day keeps the doctor away” guy as long as I can remember, and since I bought land and started my own orchard 20 years ago, I have grown and tasted dozens of heirloom apple varieties, and, weather permitting, have stored enough each fall to last me at least nine months of the year, while in the remaining three have gotten my fix from home canned apple sauce and dried apples.
Which is why I feel strangely disloyal in making this confession, but I think it’s true, and the reason I know it is this: If I eat an apple, say an Ashmead’s Kernel, York Imperial, or Kidd’s Orange Red, which are three of my favorites from my orchard, I find it delicious, and am thoroughly contented. BUT, if I eat an Asian pear, THEN eat one of those apples, I am left strangely dissatisfied—and in times where I have had bags of both Asian pears and apples stored in the fridge, I have repeatedly found myself eating all the pears before coming back around to the apples—and am left feeling like I have shamefully strayed from a long-term relationship.
If you’ve never experienced an Asian pear (known as ‘nashi’ in Japanese) for yourself, they are quite distinct from either apples or our more common European pears in texture, flavor, and scent. A good, ripe one will be very crisp and juicy, kind of grainy-textured in a pleasant way (very unlike the dry texture of an apple, or the buttery texture of a European pear), and mildly to more intensely sweet depending on the cultivar, but balanced with a subtle tartness that becomes more and more prominent as you eat your way to the core. The sweetness never becomes cloying, like many modern apple varieties seemingly bred to simulate candy, and their watery juiciness serves to dilute the sweetness to a perfect balance with the tangy tartness that to me is their most redeeming quality. There are often hints of butterscotch or vanilla in the flavor and/or aroma. They are usually peeled, due to the thick, dry skin of many varieties, but I find it quite pleasant to eat them whole. Visually, they are also quite distinct, with most common varieties here in the U.S. being either round or oblong, and sometimes quite large, with skin ranging from pale yellow or green to deep copper in color, often with prominent lenticels, and long, curved stems, like this Seuri:
The seeds are dark brown to jet black.
Asian pears are native to China and Japan. They first came to the U.S. in the 1850’s with the Chinese labor force working in California during the gold rush. Along with European pears, they belong to the Pyrus genus, and are divided into a few different species, with the most common being P. pyrifolia (referring to their round shape), along with the less common P. bretschneideri, which are native to northern China and are tapered toward the stem more like a European pear. In addition to their excellent flavor, there are a number of other characteristics of nashi that make them a great addition to a home orchard:
At present I am growing seven different varieties: Chojuro, Olympic (also known as Korean Giant), Seuri, Yoinashi, Shinko, Hosui, and Shinsui. Of these I have as yet tasted the fruit of only five, as the Shinko and Yoinashi are recent additions to my orchard. Of the varieties that have borne fruit, I like them all for different reasons, but if pressed to choose only one, it would be Chojuro, as it has been the most consistent producer, keeps very well in storage, ripens to the most beautiful color, and has a very distinct butterscotch note in its flavor. One thing I will say for sure is that I want to grow more of them.