Some of our cordon pears are bearing fruit for the first time, and Louise Bonne of Jersey was the first of the autumn sorts to ripen. Despite the name, this old French variety hails from Avranches, Normandy, where it acquired various names, amongst them Bonne Louise d’Avranches and Beurré d’Avranches. As the first fruit fell from the tree a couple of weeks ago, the rest were picked and we have since been waiting impatiently for the tell tale signs of full ripeness, eating each as it becomes ready. Pears should be picked at the green stage, and ripened slowly in storage, or more quickly in the fruit bowl, and they should not be allowed to go too far before picking, as their texture and flavour can be impaired.
A good pear is a very fine fruit indeed, but so often they are a little disappointing. Supermarket offerings are often so far from ripe that, when they do finally soften, they are found to be rather inferior fruits. That is not to say that a good pear cannot be found; unlike the selection of apples, which, to my mind, is rather pitiful, especially given our extensive apple growing heritage, the supermarkets often offer some good varieties of pear. Not the diversity of varieties that might have been found in the old gardens of the 1800s, of course, and, sadly, Conference accounts for the vast majority of English pear production. This variety was the product of Thomas Francis Rivers of Sawbridgeworth; the fourth member of the Rivers family to be named Thomas, and not to be confused with the third Thomas Rivers who was, perhaps, the most well known, and the author of the influential work, The Orchard House. The variety was named when Rivers was chairman of a pear conference in 1885.
Conference is not, to my mind, a particularly good pear. It is not attractive in form, the flavour is just passable, and the texture somewhat lacking; it can be somewhat gritty, especially near the core. In my view, it is no more than ordinary, although no doubt commercial growers find some practical merit with the trees that home growers need not be quite so concerned over, and it is a great shame that other sorts are not now cultivated commercially to any great extent in this country. Nonetheless, pears such as Doyenne du Comice and Williams’s Bon Chretien are readily available. The latter is an old sort, of a similar age to Louise Bonne of Jersey, and extensively cultivated abroad. At their best, these are first rate pears, although their natural season is rather short. A modern introduction, Taylor’s Gold, also makes the occasional appearance on supermarket shelves, and can be a very enjoyable fruit. This is hardly surprising, as it is thought to be a russetted sport of Doyenne du Comice. The Forelle, a very old variety from Germany, also makes the occasional appearance, and is perhaps the most beautiful of pears, named for its attractive mottled skin – Forelle being German for trout. Its flavour does not quite live up to its appearance, in my view, but it is still a pleasant fruit if acquired in good condition, and highly thought of by the old authorities.
I wonder whether the appreciation of the pear may have somewhat diminished in recent years, perhaps because of the less than impressive fruits that are often for sale, or perhaps the exotic imports and year round availability of fruits has taken away the excitement of a perfect fruit in its proper season. If something is always available one has nothing to look forward to. In The Botanic Garden, volume 12, 1825, Benjamin Maund has this to say concerning pears:
“Were Pines as plentiful as Pears, we believe that ounce for ounce the latter would be preferred by the greatest number of critical palates. Of course we allude to Pears of first-rate quality—the melting, luscious, perfumed Flemish varieties, so highly prized, where known; and which every one with a few yards of garden ground, or exterior wall, may produce.”
Pines, or pineapples as we now call them, were, of course, a highly prized product of the large kitchen garden, requiring a heated glasshouse and a great deal of care and attention to bring them to fruit. Unlike today, where cheap pineapples are imported in great quantities, such a homegrown fruit was then a stunning luxury item. Maund goes on to consider the merits of the Louise Bonne of Jersey, which is nicely illustrated in this work, and notes:
“The Louise bonne, of Jersey, cultivated by Mr. Rivers, is, he says, the Louise bonne d’Avranches of the French, and superior to that usually known by the name.”
Lindley, in his Guide to the Orchard and Kitchen Garden, 1831, on which I have relied to some extent in the selection of varieties for our own garden, lists under Louise Bonne what must be this other variety of the same name referred to by Maund. There can be little grounds for confusing the two, however, as the physical descriptions are quite different as is the season of use. That Louise Bonne of Jersey escaped Lindley’s attention in this work is not surprising, as it was only introduced to this country some fifteen years or so prior to publication. Maund continues:
“The Louise bonne, when well grown, is a handsome table fruit, possessing more freshness of appearance, from its red and green tints, than the generality of Pears which are met with in the dessert at the latter part of the year.”
This is certainly true of the fruit produced this year on our cordon. Whilst pears are rather prone to misshapen and lumpy forms, the Louise Bonne is a good looking pear. On the tree it is green on the shaded side, but extensively flushed and streaked with dull brownish red on the sun side, and the skin covered with a profusion of russetty dots. As it ripens, the green turns to a golden yellow and the dull red to crimson. It is, especially for an old pear, unusually colourful; not a match for the beautiful Forelle, but still a good looking fruit.
The Magazine of Horticulture, Botany, and All Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Rural Affairs, volume 10, 1844, edited by Charles Hovey, provides some clarification on the origins of the variety.
“It appears that the Louise Bonne of Jersey is quite an old variety, though but so recently introduced to England and this country. According to an account of it in the Pomological Report of the Hort. Soc. of Rouen, it was obtained at Avranches in 1788, by M. de Longueval, and its original name was the Buerré de Longueval. It was, however, generally distributed under the name of Louise Bonne d’Avranches, which is undoubtedly its legitimate title; but the London Horticultural Society have called it the Louise Bonne of Jersey, from its having first been received in their garden from the Island of Jersey—and to distinguish it from the old Louise Bonne, on old and inferior fruit.”
The article considers this newly introduced pear to be of fine quality:
“Of the many varieties of pears which are of more recent introduction, probably none take a higher rank than the Louise Bonne of Jersey… Mr. Thompson has stated that in the climate of England, it more than “rivals the Marie Louise,” and is worthy a place in every collection. Its beauty is fully equal to its excellence.”
I will be interested to see how Marie Louise compares, as this is also one of the varieties we selected for our pear cordons. William Kenrick, in The New American Orchardist, 1844, provides a similar account of this “fruit of surpassing excellence” that is “recommended for extensive cultivation”.
Some years later, in The Fruits of America, 1852, Charles Hovey also recounts a tale of the origins and naming of this pear, providing a date of 1820 for its introduction to the London Horticultural Society. He also considers this to be a fine variety:
“The Louise Bonne of Jersey is one of the finest pears which has been recently introduced, and it will undoubtedly become as popular a variety as the now widely disseminated, and justly esteemed, Williams’s Bon Chrétien. It has not only the qualities of size, beauty, productiveness, and keeping well, but it is of the most hardy character…”
Whilst he was no doubt correct in articulating the fine qualities of this pear, Hovey was sadly mistaken concerning the fate of Louise Bonne – whilst Williams’s pear became the most cultivated in America, where it is more commonly known as the Bartlett pear, and indeed widely grown in many countries, Louise Bonne appears to be relegated to the small orchard and the enthusiast’s garden.
For the final word, one must naturally consult Hogg’s Fruit Manual, where Louise Bonne is described as “A most delicious pear”:
“This valuable pear was raised at Avranches about the year 1788, by M. Longueval, who at first named it simply “Louise,” but subsequently added Bonne, and it thenceforth became known as “Bonne Louise d’Avranches.” The original tree is still in existence in the garden where it was raised.”
To my mind, pears can be a somewhat marginal proposition in the UK. Certainly we have a long history of the cultivation of the fruit, and it is not hard to obtain a crop of some sort. Pears can be very hardy and some varieties offer excellent disease resistance. It is, though, a little more difficult to obtain the fruit in its greatest perfection. To make a somewhat inappropriate generalisation, it seems that gardeners of today are rather inclined to drop a fruit tree of rather arbitrary selection into an equally arbitrary location and condition and imagine it will bear. It may or may not bear well, and what it does bear may or may not represent the fine quality that one hopes for. The suitability of a given pear to a prospective location needs a little more consideration as to soil conditions, local climate, and such measures as might afford a better chance of avoiding damaging spring frosts and later properly ripening any fruit. In the walled kitchen gardens of yesteryear, pears were assigned to particular aspects depending on their needs, and the additional protection and warmth afforded by the walls was sometimes necessary to produce a good crop from some sorts, whilst others would do perfectly well as a standard in a northerly orchard. Whilst this is also true of other fruits, including apples, I suspect that it is more so with pears, and to achieve a great fruit requires a little more attention from the gardener and the blessings of a good season, the latter of which is rather out of our hands.
This potential for variability in fruit quality is, therefore, to be borne in mind when describing the eating qualities of any fruit. As well as the vagaries of the weather, the moment of picking and the condition of ripening may influence considerably the final qualities of the fruit. The same variety may be found to be succulent and highly flavoured, or gritty, mealy and bland, depending on circumstances. Ideally, one would judge the overall merits of a given variety only after several seasons have passed, and perhaps I should revisit my thoughts on this pear next year, though if it never surpasses the fruits of this season I shall have little complaint.
Pears typically have but faint aromas and a somewhat elusive aromatic flavour. They are amongst the subtlest of fruits, having little of the boldness of the apple. A good pear, though, is a delicate delight. Although the chances of bringing the fruit to the perfect state of ripeness within our often uncooperative British climate would be improved by training against protective garden walls, ours are, of necessity, laid out against a system of post and wire supports. However, they are located within the warmest area of the kitchen garden, where the microclimate is greatly improved by the south facing walls that support the glasshouses and west facing walls of the outbuildings. The effect of these walls is quite remarkable, and clearly discerned, especially on a sunny day.
Our samples should be of perfect ripeness; they were gathered whilst still green yet generously flushed with dull red on the sun side, and ripened indoors to a point where the green has developed to a warm yellow and the dull red to a lively crimson, with the russetty dots that cover the skin providing more prominent decoration. The first thing one notices on cutting the firm but seemingly entirely ripe flesh is a surprising waft of perfumed fragrance. The texture is just short of entirely buttery; it may be that with a little further time in storage this might develop further or it may depend somewhat on the season, as all of the old descriptions suggest a tender, buttery flesh. Regardless, the texture was very pleasant, with no grit in the flesh – something I particularly dislike and have tried to avoid in my selection of varieties.
In terms of flavour, one is struck first by a delicious aromatic quality, markedly richer than any pear I have tasted previously. However, I have little with which to make a fair comparison, as this is the first year we have our own homegrown pears and I would expect homegrown fruits to perform better than supermarket offerings. On biting into the succulent flesh, a surprisingly refreshing juice is released, in good measure, with a little acidity that provides for a well balanced and quite different experience from the norm. Though with that treasured pear flavour, there are other qualities to this variety that I had not anticipated, that render this a most refreshing and enjoyable fruit indeed. Several of the old books describe the flavour, amongst various superlatives, as brisk, and perhaps it is this quality that we picked up on here.
I am fairly sure that this is the best pear I have ever tasted. My dad rates it as second only to a fruit of unknown variety that an old neighbour used to grow many years ago. Perhaps one of the others we are growing – some of which have fruited this year but are yet to ripen – will offer an even more enjoyable experience, but I am certainly very impressed with this most excellent old French pear. Somewhere along the way, it seems to have fallen out of favour, yet it seems very much worthy of wider cultivation.