Only two out of ten Americans have ever tasted Asian pears, those round apple-looking pears, according to Tom Sacks, the general manager of Subarashii Kudamono Farms in Coopersburg, PA, the east coast’s premier Asian pear farm. That may change thanks to the efforts of Mr & Mrs Joel Spira, the visioneers behind Subarashii Kudamono, and West coast farmer Torrey Olson of Gabriel Farm in Sebastopol, CA.
Asian pears have long had a toehold in California where a large Asian immigrant population enjoys them. But it is impressive that Subarashii farm is able to turn heads in the traditional apple and European pear territory of the Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Using wine tastings as a model, marketing dynamo Holly Harter holds events that offer up Asian pears with fabulous local cheeses and feature the cuisine styling of up-and-coming chefs. The PA nonprofit Buy Fresh Buy Local helps publicize events. Recently, Subarashii gave 5,000 attendees at the Allentown ballpark samples of their gourmet Asian pears. The first 1,000 kids also got Japanese-style headbands as well. Because of their fun events, enthusiasm, and evangelism, Asian pears are finally making inroads into eastern metropolitan markets.
Subarashii was founded 30 years ago when Joel Spira, a physicist and inventor (he invented the dimmer switch) was first introduced to Asian pears on a trip to Japan. He loved their crunchiness and taste but couldn’t find them back in the U.S.. So he decided to grow them in Pennsylvania, where he had founded his first company, Lutron Electronics. Using scientific methods, he and his botanist wife Ruth set about breeding and growing the best trees for their area. All of their showcase fruit are named after family members with an honorific ending "san," such as “Lilysan” and “Elisan.”
Meanwhile Out West
When Torrey and Lucy Olson acquired Gabriel Farm it was already Asian themed, growing Asian pears, Fuji apples, and persimmons. They've expanded this hobby farm and turned it into a great example of sustainable and organic farming practices. Their excellent fruit is known throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. They reach newcomers and make converts through their personable conversation and samples at the major farmers markets. Gabriel Farms is also the go-to spot for pick your own experience in Sonoma County which is where customers learn about the variations and quality of Gabriel Farm's Asian pears—or get a reminder. "This is our 10th year doing You-Pick. In the earlier years people would be surprised when they tried a good Asian pear,” said Torrey. “And now it seems as though people have forgotten from last season, but know that they are really good."
Fall is Asian pear season, and if you haven't tried one yet, it’s the perfect time for an introduction. These pears are crunchy yet juicy, with an array of subtle flavors. The kids call them "crunch apples." Though it might taste like a cross between a pear and an apple, the Asian pear is actually its own pome fruit. Their growing season runs through a poetic parade of varieties: Chojuro, Shinseki, 20th Century, Niitaka, Shinko, Olympic, and then the Ya Li. But Torrey asks that people don't get stuck on one variety, "Don't just pick one kind, don't restrict yourself— they are all good,” he says.
Asian pears can be eaten out of hand, just rinse in cold water. Some people like them cold from the fridge. They are also great chopped into salads or paired with cheese. For something different, try Torrey's Asian Pear Pizza.
Heidi Lewis writes about farms, bees, and fruit from her home in Sonoma County, CA. She's been with The FruitGuys since they were FruitKids.