As supermarket demands grow higher the traditional pear tree shrinks and becomes less diverse. The tall varieties of the past may now be found in old orchards and along forgotten lanes.
Perry making: harvesting, crushing the fruits in a stone mill, and squeezing out the juice in a giant press; the juice ferments in wooden barrels over winter.
Illustration courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing
The Book of Pears (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015) by Joan Morgan is indispensable and a one-of-a-kind guide. It tells the story of the pear from its delightful taste and wonderful appearance to breeding and cultivation, following the fruit’s journey through history and around the world. This excerpt identifies the loss of our noble old world varieties as the markets from local to global.
"Orchards are like wood pasture, full of microhabitats, their biodiversity no less rich for having been sustained through nurture by many hands. They tell the
Seasons frankly, flaunting their blossom, dropping their fruit, enticing creatures large and small. They display an intricacy of peculiarity to a place."
Sue Clifford and Angela King, England in Particular: A Celebration of the Commonplace, the Local, the Vernacular and the Distinctive, 2006.
The romantic orchard of our dreams, planted with noble trees, whose laden boughs were picked from tall ladders, bears little resemblance to the market grower's most recent, dwarfed, intensive plantations. The lofty standard tree of the old traditional orchard proved far too demanding on labor and time, and the fruit insufficiently smart for modern fresh fruit production. These days a dwarf tree can be expeditiously picked standing on the ground, whereas picking required a full-time ladder man just to walk the towering ladders of 40 rungs or more around these enormous trees in order to get the pickers up into the branches. A standard tree's main role now is in the production of cider and perry, where looks are unimportant. But there is a reappraisal of its value. Traditional orchards are seen to have multiple benefits in the day-to-day life of villagers, and for suburban and even city dwellers, serving as focal points for neighborhood activities, as well as sources of local food and food specialties. Large trees planted in grassed orchards are also recognized as supporting uniquely important habitats for the survival of many wildlife and plant species, and embraced by programs for the conservation and promotion of biodiversity in the countryside. From another perspective, they have come to symbolize our yearnings for a diversity of fruits that the modern industry fails to deliver. This strand in our resistance to globalised food production finds expression in the artisan food movement, which flourishes and uses fruit from prolific standard trees to make perry, cider, fruit juices and fruit preserves for outlets in farmers' markets, food fairs and local specialist shops.
Half a century or longer ago traditional orchards of big standard or somewhat smaller half standard trees were a common sight, giving distinctiveness to all fruit-growing counties, whether the trees were grown for fresh fruit or liquor. Many more orchards then existed all over the countryside. Every farm had one to supply the family with fresh fruit almost all year round. I remember from my own childhood in the Vale of Glamorgan the orchards at all the dairy farms. Wherever the farm might be, an orchard usually lay alongside the house; the great house and the old vicarage also had orchards, and the smallholder grew fruit trees on his land. Apples were the main fruit tree, but often there would also be a few pear trees, plums or damsons, and, depending upon the local climate, perhaps some cherries as well.
The best pears could be picked and set aside in a cool place to ripen and enjoy after a good meal, or stored away to mature for later months, while the windfalls were gathered up and used fairly soon in one way or another. Older varieties were often multipurpose, everyday pears – not fine enough to be dessert quality but acceptable fresh or simply left to poach gently in a pan of water at the side of the fire or the range. Late keeping baking pears lasted naturally through the winter with no need for any other preservation than a dry shed, as did late cooking apples to make into a dish of stewed fruit or a fruit pudding. In a good year, there could be far too much fruit for the family’s use. Relatives and locals might fill bags to take home, and some could be bundled up and carted off to sell in the nearest town, especially if they were summer pears ripening in July and August. These were tasty and thirst-quenching when freshly picked, but lasted only days once off the tree. Even so, the pears were useful. The heavy crops could be sold and bring in some money to help pay the wages of the workers in the felds and rickyards, harvesting and threshing the corn and bringing in the hay. This is probably one reason that a number of these very early pears have names such as Harvest and Lammas pear.
A mix of surviving ancient and more recently introduced varieties growing in orchards of 50 years ago very likely included the main varieties – Williams’, which was widely planted by the 1890s, and Conference by the 1930s. Hessle made an ideal smallholder’s tree, very productive, but relatively modest in growth, with outlets on the fresh fruit market and to jam factories. Many trees also remain of Pitmaston Duchess, a large golden pear that was good fresh, poached or bottled, and in demand from the canners. Among the more venerable pear trees could have been the ancient Catherine pear, seen on sale in some markets in the early 1900s, and the old Jargonelle, another August pear once planted almost everywhere and still remembered. Bishop’s Tongue, though a variety known for centuries, was planted in the 1890s, and the baking pear Winter Orange can to be found today growing in its native Suffolk. Blakeney Red, now the most common perry pear tree, probably owes its widespread distribution in the West Midlands to its many uses – mainly for perry, but also for cooking, canning and making a khaki dye. It ‘won the war’ claimed one admirer, through supplying First World War soldiers with ‘good drink, good food and clothes for his back’.
Traditional orchards of all kinds significantly diminished in size and number from around the 1980s. Fresh fruit production moved into the new supermarket age with its demand for immaculate fruit, and in response commercial growers adopted increasingly intensive ways of growing apples and pears. Modern farming also became more specialized. The old West Country pattern of mixed farming – livestock, crops and orchards – was deemed unprofitable, bringing an erosion of cider and perry orchards, or their loss altogether. Production of orchard liquors increasingly moved away from the farm into factories. All over the country, the farmhouse orchard faded away, as its harvests became less important since fruit could easily be bought. The land was turned over to grass for the dairy cows and cattle or, as small farms were absorbed into bigger units, sold off with the house – for an uncertain future. A number of old-fashioned multipurpose pears and former prized varieties a century and more ago may still be growing in corners of old orchards and on land once used for market gardening. Old perry pear trees, on the other hand, are in no danger of being forgotten, but valued again and fuelling the revival of real perry. Like true cider, genuine perry is enjoying an upturn in its fortunes as part of the demand for regional foods made from indigenous ingredients by local craftsmen and women. This trend was encouraged by the more recent diversification of agriculture, as mainstream farming moved into the hands of even larger producers and many farmers looked again at other previous sources of income.
This excerpt is adapted from Joan Morgan's The Book of Pears (October 2015) and is printed with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing and Ebury Press.