You can count on the arrival of Bartlett pears to signal the official end of summer, at least in Southern California. This year, they showed up just one week prior to the autumnal equinox; non-fall weather aside, it is nice to see them, even if the weather change that they imply is still a ways off.
Bartletts are held up as a sort of Platonic ideal, a Pyrus communis that embodies everything a pear should look, smell, and taste like. And yes, they're the canning pear of choice, though when fully ripe, the flesh is as spoonable as soft butter with near simple syrup sweetness. We wouldn't blame you if they never made it to the jar.
Tenerelli Orchards normally has a pretty nice crop of pears heading into fall. But all their crops were hit extremely hard by a frost earlier this year. According to John Tenerelli, they lost about 95% of their fruit, which forced them to pare down their market appearances to just three: Hollywood, Santa Monica, and Pasadena.
"I mean, it's been an easy summer for me, because it's been much less work," said Tenerelli. "But financially it's been really difficult." In fact, the pears he was selling (emphasis on 'was,' as he'll be out this week) actually came from a neighboring orchard, Bone Ranch, out in Littlerock. They only have two acres of Bartletts and it was a pretty light crop, though they only lost about 23% to the frost. His other neighbor, Yingst Ranch, fared a little better and will have both Bartletts and Red D'Anjous in for the next month or so. The much larger (read 100+ acres) Ha's Apple Farm out in Tehachapi says they'll have Bartletts and D'Anjous in until the end of the season.
Pears are one of the few tree fruits that actually do best when picked hard and unripe. Aside from a couple fruits just starting to blush, almost all the Bartlett pears at the market will be hard fleshed and green. The key is to wait: allow the fruit to sit out on the counter and slowly transform from solid and firm to spoonably soft and yielding. Patience not your thing? Put them in a paper bag with an apple. Apples naturally release the "ripening gas" ethylene which will push your pears into the yellow blushed ripe stage. Generally speaking, it takes a Bartlett about a week to fully ripen from the moment it's picked, though some vendors do provide near-ripe fruit for the eager eater. Once they've turned, eat them fast. The high sugar content of a ripe pear ferments pretty rapidly. We recommend slicing and sprinkling with a little garam masala. Poaching also works well, especially if you have still unripe fruit.
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If the recent spate of hot weather made us question the arrival of fall, the giant bucket of quince at the Walker Farms (Exeter, CA) table pretty much squashed our doubts. The aroma is intoxicating, but beginners beware: this is not a raw eating fruit. At least not most varieties. There are a few that can be eaten raw, but check with your vendor beforehand. Quince, a native of the Middle East, is a cooking fruit, added to pies and sauces to perk up the aroma and flavor -- quince has an intoxicating fragrance akin to honeysuckles, freesia, and tropical pears (yes, we know they don't exist, but that's the smell). They can also be cooked down into membrillo paste and eaten straight as candy or paired with a strong cheese for contrast. Just a heads up though, when cooked, quince turns a deep wine like red, which makes a beautiful apple or pear butter. It's also very high in pectin, which makes it a great partner in the jam pot.
Joe Avitua at Walker Farms says he'll have the quince for another three to four weeks. You can find him at all the Pasadena markets, as well as Glendale's.