California has long been home to Asian pear orchards, many of which were started by Asian immigrants, primarily Japanese, more than a century ago. Often much larger and juicier than their European counterparts, Asian pears are known for their sweet flavor, crisp texture and abundant fragrance. Often referred to as an “apple pear” or “sand pear,” they are perhaps best envisioned as halfway between apples and more common European pears.
In addition to Asian pears, Jeff Rieger has been tending more than 50 varieties of fruits and vines at his Penryn Orchard Specialties since 2002, when he bought the orchard from George Oki, who started the farm in the Sierra foothills just east of Sacramento in Placer County. Among the many varieties of produce Rieger grows, he’s known for his pears, which he treks over a 900-mile round-trip commute to the Santa Monica farmers market every week.
“They’re so delicate,” his partner, Laurence Hauben, says of Asian pears. “Unlike European pears, you have to pick them ripe and ready to eat. They bruise easily,” she notes.
Penryn currently grows nine varieties of pears, four Asian — light, sweet, early-season Kosui; tender, aromatic Hosui; bright 20th Century; and crisp, mild Shinseiki — as well as two types of Chinese pears — sweet-tart Yali and Tsuli, which Hauben describes as Yali’s “country cousin — she’s not as polished-looking and a little more spicy” — along with three European varieties.
“Most commercial orchards pick Asian pears at 11 to 12% brix [a measurement of sugar content],” says Hauben. “We pick them at 15, 16, 17%. We pick them sweet and like them full-flavored.”
Penryn will be carrying Asian and Chinese pears — not quite as round as Asian pears, Chinese tend to be more fragrant and assertive in flavor — for the next few weeks. Hauben recommends holding the Asian pears in the refrigerator until ready to eat, but holding the Chinese at room temperature. “Store them on your counter in a beautiful fruit bowl like a floral arrangement. Their fragrance intensifies.”
At their ripest, Asian pears are probably best enjoyed as a snack, provided you have plenty of napkins to wipe up the juices. Or slice them to add to salads or cheese platters, or bake them into crumbles or cakes — they’re a great alternative to apples in a deep-dish pie. They’re also wonderful in savory dishes, standing up alongside pork or duck.