McManus Family Fruit


  Heirloom Varieties

Q:  I keep hearing the term "heirloom" in relation to fruit.  What does it mean exactly?

A:   Heirloom varieties (fruit and vegetables that are old, difficult to find, and special) have attracted a great following of late.  However, all pears available today are actually heirlooms. The 18th century was a time of pear mania in France and Belgium.  Plant breeders in the employ of the ruling family carried out an extensive breeding program that resulted in hundreds of new pear varieties.  The vast majority are lost to us, but many of them had characteristics that insured their survival.  

Today American grocery stores carry only pears that lend themselves to large agricultural operations.  All of these varieties are two hundred years or more old, and are excellent.  There are, however, quite a few wonderful pears that do not lend themselves to commercial production.  Along with the favored old standards, we offer a selection you probably won't see anywhere else.  We call them 'uncommon  pears'.  Click here 

Q:  We noticed the illustrations on the Organic Pears page.  They are beautiful and look rather "heirloomy" themselves.  Is there a story behind those pictures?

A:  Yes!  The illustrations are from a wonderful book called 'The Pears of New York'  by U. P. Hedrick.  Published in 1921 by the New York Department of Agriculture, this treatise was an attempt to catalog and describe all of the pear varieties then grown in the state of New York.  It is fascinating that there were 70 major varieties available, and more than 2000 minor ones!

This, of course, reflects the loss of diversity in all of our agriculture, but New England at the turn of the 19th century had been infected with a 'pear mania' -- an unexplainable obsession with all things pear.  It seemed that everyone had an opinion about them, and everyone was growing their favorite type.  There were competitions that centered around size, flavor, storage and beauty.  Discussion raged in the streets and newspapers.  While it did not reach the level of the fabled 'tulip mania', it did result in the preservation of many minor varieties--and in the publication of this defining book.  

  Ripening and Eating

Q:  Why is it so difficult to ripen certain kinds of pears, especially D'Anjou?

A:   Okay ... we are making some of this up, but what the heck.  Before the arrival of refrigeration, huge supermarkets, and halfway 'round the world shipping, it was very important to be able to store fruits and vegetables for the long term.  We have all forgotten how good a piece of fresh fruit tastes in February when there is no fresh fruit available.  The fruit breeders of the Middle Ages selected varieties that would keep well and didn't ripen at the drop of a hat.  In fact, storage-ability was really, really important, and flavor was secondary. 

We once lost a box of pears called 'Vicar of Winkfield' in the back of our garage until March.  And it still had the hardness of a potato (and tasted a bit like one too).  We could not ripen the things, but you could eat them and when this was all you had you might even crave them.

Thus emerged the sub-group called winter pears, including D'Anjou. Chosen for storage and flavor, they require some weeks of cold temperature to begin the ripening process, and even then they ripen slowly.  Many of them are our finest pears, and are worth the wait.  Please check our ripening instructions for more pointers.  

  Pear Appearance

Q:  What's the deal with the nicks and marks on my pears?  

A:  You have become used to perfection.  Fruit is sorted to a standard grade at our industrial packing sheds, and most of the cosmetic problem fruit has been taken out and processed.  Needless to say, a lot of perfectly good fruit is wasted in this way.  There is much that can happen to a pear while it is being grown; they are notoriously delicate.  Spring frosts can get them, insect pests can mark them, and limbs will rub, causing a blemish.    

We pack our pears by hand, and we try to take out anything that will compromise the eating quality of the fruit.  But there is a wider variety of size, shape and blemishes than you might see in a grocery store.  More on this later.