BY KURT MICHAEL FRIESE
So many people think of pears as the under-appreciated cousin of the apple. Indeed, 350 years ago, no less a forefather of Western culinary tradition than Françoise Pierre de la Varenne called the pear, in his flowery prose, “the grandfather of the apple, its poor relation, a fallen aristocrat, the man-at-arms of our domains, which once, in our humid land, lived lonely and lordly, preserving the memory of its prestige by its haughty comportment.”
He wasn’t too far off, despite his comma-dripping rhetoric. The pear has been cultivated longer than the apple, and both are among the family Rosaceae, but there the relationship ends. They cannot be successfully crossbred, for any graft of one onto the other usually dies. But this oft-maligned fruit is enjoyed, even preferred by many the baker, cook, and distiller for its unique flavor, texture, and aroma.
There are of course many varieties of pears, but only a few have gained any common commercial success. It is easy to find red or green Anjou, red or green Bartlett, and even Bosc pears in most markets today, and only slightly more challenging to find Comice, Seckel, and Forelle.
Like apples, most pears are produced in the Northwest, but also like apples—which once grew in great abundance here—they grow well in Iowa. In either case, their worst enemy is the disease called “fire blight,” which has led many producers to cross traditional European varieties with resistant Asian stock. This helps control blight, but often at the cost of flavor and an undesirable gritty texture.
Inspired long ago by an idea in an obscure movie called Twenty Bucks, I have long preferred to use pears rather than apples in pie, and Bartletts are the preferred variety here. Except for substituting pears, you would follow your favorite apple pie recipe to produce a delicious dessert that is fun to puzzle people with. Let them assume it is apple pie, and ask them to identify what that one unique flavor might be.
I do not grow pears myself but have long wanted to, if only to use them for my favorite pear application, Poire William, a sweet pear brandy produced in the Alsace region of France. The libation takes its moniker from the French name for what we call the Bartlett, the William Bon Chrétien (“poire” simply being the French for pear). The best and most coveted of these comes with a whole pear in the bottle, a trick that leaves the uninitiated scratching their heads in wonder as they sip.
The secret? Alsatian orchardists tie bottles to the branches, sticking a blossom end into each bottle just as the fruit is set. The pear then continues its entire maturation in the bottle, creating an odd sight and an eerie sound for those passing these “bottle trees” as they clink and glint in the summer sun.
In the fall the pears and bottles are harvested and washed well, and those that look best are set aside to receive the separately produced Eau de Vie. The intense, heady aroma and sweet pear flavor are the perfect cap to an autumn evening by the fire.
Kurt Michael Friese is co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay and Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He lives with his wife Kim in rural Johnson County. Comments may be directed to Kurt@EdibleIowaRiverValley.com.