IF YOU SHOP for Asian pears at your neighborhood grocer, chances are you find a single box, containing a single variety, labeled nothing more exciting than “Asian pear.” Every October, farmers-market shoppers at the Rockridge Orchards & Cidery stand are given a tantalizing glimpse into the hundreds of varietals of these pears that are grown across their continent of origin. No, you won’t find hundreds, but you can taste your way through nearly a dozen distinct cultivars — and they’re well worth seeking out.
Rockridge’s founding farmer, Wade Bennett, planted his first Asian pears in 1990, and was one of the original growers and cidermakers at the University District Farmers Market in 1993. Rockridge’s pears still are found seasonally at the Columbia City Farmers Market, and year-round at the University District and West Seattle markets and the Rockridge Country Market in Enumclaw, although Wade and his wife, Judy, sold to younger family members Jason Devela and Misty Frantz in 2017.
October is prime season for their fresh Asian pears, and Rockridge’s offer a pleasurable shock if you know only the dull grocery-store standard. The standard tends to be a cultivar named 20th Century, also known as Nijiseiki. Rockridge’s 20th Century pears are crisper and juicier than the norm, and are available fresh or, some years, in nonalcoholic cider (this year’s sizable crop means the cider is available, but Devela notes that it sells out quickly).
Their Hosui, Shinseiki and Shinko varietals are generally similar to the 20th Century — minimally tart, pleasantly sweet and as juicy as the best Comice pears, while being as crisp as the ideal Honeycrisp apple. While each pear has its fans, it’s their extreme crunch that stands out, combined with an absolutely drippy amount of juice. That textural combination makes for a messy delight.
The extremely sweet Korean Giant is famous for its size — under the right growing conditions, a single fruit can reach 2 pounds. Yakumo and Kikusui cultivars tweak the pears’ simple flavor in surprising ways — Yakumo is strongly reminiscent of honeydew melon, while Kikusui tastes like a dense, sweet lime.
My favorite group has a richer character. Yongi, Chojuro, Ichiban and Yoinashi each taste like butterscotch, ranging from the subtle toffee-apple notes of the Yoinashi to the intense Butter Rum Lifesaver flavor of the Chojuro. Yongi is complex, like a hot buttered rum made with extremely high-end rum. For anyone with a sweet tooth, these four are magical, particularly sliced and served with a teeny pinch of salt.
That’s about as close to a formal dessert as you can get from an Asian pear. They don’t bake well — in a pie, their juices pour out by the bucketful, while their crunch holds to the point of absurdity. Pear butter works better, as the flavor concentrates while the liquid slowly reduces; my preference is to blend some of the butterscotch varieties with milder ones, because pure Chojuro butter tastes more like sundae topping than what I want on toast. Even the peels of those Chojuros have such intense flavor that I’ve steeped them in hot water for a no-added-sugar butterbeer that Harry Potter (or your own Muggle kids) definitely would appreciate — if you don’t add the rum, that is.
2½ cups water
Peels from 2 medium Chojuro Asian pears
A few drops vanilla extract
Rum, for serving (optional)
1. In a small saucepan set over low heat, combine the water and pear peels.
2. Gently simmer the peels for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, and add the vanilla.
Note: Chojuro butterbeer can be served hot or over ice. To serve, pour into mugs or glasses and, if desired, stir in a shot of rum.