NATURAL BRIDGE, Va.
Virginia Gold is no ordinary orchard. Here, on a spectacular, verdant hill crest south of Lexington, in the shadow of both the Blue Ridge and Allegany Mountains, YoungSuk Estabrook creates new varieties of Asian pears.
In December, the Korean-born Estabrook plans to sell for the first time an oval-shaped, bright orange, crisp and sweet cultivar that she has named Winter Gold, which took more than 10 years for her to hybridize. After harvest, she plans to allow it to sweeten, in cold storage, for one month. Throughout the harvest season, which began in mid-August and continues through fall, 14 kinds of Asian pears are for sale at Virginia Gold Orchard or by mail (see box inside).
Some are sweet. Some are sour. Flavors run from subtle to unexpected. Last season, one variety tasted remarkably like bubble gum. But don't look for Seuri -- the gum-flavored pear -- in the orchard's sales-packing shed. That's where Estabrook gives visitors samples of her work. "It wasn't up to my flavor standards, so I cut it down," she says without a hint of remorse.
The majority of the 4,000 trellis-trained Asian pear trees at Virginia Gold are standardized, time-tested cultivars that were developed in China, Japan or Korea. The exception is "row nine" where Estabrook grows 25 different named varieties for testing and hybridizing.
"We have something special here, something that other farms don't have," says Estabrook on a stroll down row nine where her latest fruits are reaching maturity. "You have to be different to compete with other orchards."
For a moment, forget about pears named Anjou, Comice and Bosc. The Asian pear, Pyrus serotina, also known as the Chinese pear or apple pear, is a different fruit altogether.
All pears, it's believed, have a common parentage from rootstock native to western China. But centuries ago, trees that were taken westward to European countries changed over the years and produced fruit with a texture and flavor like the common Bartlett pear.
Pear stock that made its way eastward across China and eventually to Japan and Korea went on to bear fruit that has more in common with the apple in shape and texture. Unlike their Euro-cousins, Asian pears are consumed when the flesh is firm and crisp. They can weigh anywhere from four ounces to a whopping two pounds or more. Asian pears roughly fall into three groups: round fruits with green to yellow skin, round fruits with bronze-colored mottled skin, and pear-shaped fruit with green skin. The flavor is slightly floral with hints of apple and melon. Chinese railroad laborers in the 1850s brought Asian pear seeds to California, where they have flourished in select groves in the northern part of the state. More than 25 kinds are commercially grown in this country. The best known variety is the round, yellow-skinned 20th Century. Nijisseki is also the most popular pear grown in Japan, where perfect specimens are boxed for gift giving.
In 1976, YoungSuk Jung was working as a secretary in Seoul. She had no interest in orchards but loved a good Asian pear. "For us, they were very special and expensive," she says. Boston-native Paul Estabrook, was working as a field engineer on a hydroelectric project in Korea. That's where he tasted his first Asian pear.
"It was big, sweet and juicy," he says, "not the Bartlett I was brought up on."
In short, they met, married, had two children and eventually settled on a 116-acre farm in New Hampshire, where they planted more than 500 Asian pear trees.
But after a couple of years, they came to realize that a miscalculation had been made. The growing season for Asian pears was too short in New England. They needed to head south.
In 1990, they bought 114 acres in the southern Shenandoah Valley and soon after moved the 500 trees, packed in wet sawdust, to their new home in the foothills. "We will never do that again," says YoungSuk Estabrook with a shake of the head.