Old-fashioned Southern pear trees produce heavily even when neglected for years.
September 26, 2011
My son came back from a walk the other day with about a dozen old-fashioned Florida pears that he had picked in a nearby abandoned orchard. Although the tree had received no care for years, that didn't seem to affect its production. Dozens of hard, amber-skinned fruit still hung from its scrawny limbs.
Southern pear trees are like that. These small to medium-sized deciduous trees tend to resist disease, tolerate extended droughts and produce prodigious amounts of tan- to brown-skinned, white-flesh fruit. Of the many old-fashioned varieties, Orient, Kieffer and pineapple pears stand out as staples of many longstanding Florida homesteads.
Because I wasn't sure which variety Tim had picked, I contacted Brandy Cowley-Gilbert, owner of Just Fruits & Exotics nursery in the Florida Panhandle town of Crawfordville. After I described the pear's size, shape and texture, Cowley-Gilbert said my son had probably gathered a bunch of Orient pears.
"The Orients have been around for a long time," she said. "They are a round, large pear that ripens in the fall and grows well in Central Florida."
Cowley-Gilbert said pears, persimmons, blackberries, muscadine grapes and pomegranates are fruits that will survive despite years of neglect.
"These are long-lasting fruits that can still produce 40 to 50 years after they were planted," she said.
The people who planted the pears that Tim picked probably didn't grow them as a table fruit. The softball-sized Orient and other "sand pears" (the name for a class of Chinese pears traditionally grown in the South) are a cooking fruit used in baking and canning and to make chutney, preserves and even wine.
The main thing I do with them — and what I did with the cache Tim gave me — is to make a simple pear sauce.
After washing and slicing the pears into small chunks (skin and all), I put them into a pot with about two inches of water, cover and cook over high heat. When they begin to boil, I turn the flame down and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chunks slip off a fork when pierced. At that point, I turn off the heat and let the soft fruit cool a bit before pureeing in a food processor and adding a sprinkling of ginger, cinnamon and a little sweetener.
I like to use plant-based, no-calorie stevia as a sweetener, but at times I've used maple syrup, agave and honey. I've also even eaten the pear sauce plain, allowing the fruit's natural sugars to do the job.
The day after I made the pear sauce (devouring most of it when still warm!), I realized that I'd overlooked one of the pears. The forgotten pear was too small to make into sauce by itself or to use in baking, so I decided to cut off wedges as if it were an apple to eat fresh with a chunk of sharp cheddar cheese.
Even though most people use the sand pear for cooking, I found its fresh flavor satisfying. The pear was crisp and slightly sweet and made a perfect "pairing" with the cheese. Orient pears resemble the round Asian pears sold in the produce department of grocery stores, but the flesh's texture is somewhat harder.
It's too bad that a fruit that used to be a mainstay of most Florida homesteads and diets has become unfamiliar. Most Floridians are probably unaware that certain varieties of old-fashioned pear trees not only grow but thrive in a climate best known for its citrus.
"Pears are truly one of the easiest and trouble-free fruits the homeowner can grow," Cowley-Gilbert said.
If the quick disappearance of my pear sauce is any indication, they are also one of the tastiest.