One of the most highly prized fruits in England is the versatile pear, which is cultivated extensively and eaten raw. It is also widely used in cookery and to make appealing drinks. The English are especially fond of pear desserts.

The pear is native to the temperate areas of Europe and Asia but is now grown all over the world. Pear trees have been cultivated since ancient times and the fruit has long been the subject of lore and legend. sIn early Rome the pear was consecrated to Venus, goddess of love, and it has been considered in many countries as a symbol of good luck.

Several varieties of pear were known to the Romans, who brought the fruit to England where it flourished. By Elizabethan times it was fashionable to experiment with fruit grafting, which produced many choice pears. The most famous was the Warden, orignated by the monks of Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire. Warden pies (described by the clown in Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale") made with pears, sugar, mace, nutmeg, saffron, ginger, prunes and raisins, were once a traditional dessert.

Over the years several thousand named varieties of pears that descended from the common pear have been developed. The English are partial to the Conference, Williams (Bartlett in the U.S.), Anjou, Seckel, Winter Neles and Doyenne de Comice. One of their choicest and more expensive pears comes from the Channel Island of Jersey where the fruit is so large, weighing up to five pounds, that only a few can be grown on each tree.

The snow pear was especially developed for making a traditional English effervescent drink called "perry" that dates back to the Norman Conquest. The name derives from the French word poire , meaning pear. Perry is made with fermented pear juice in the same manner as cider. A variation of the drink, made primarily with pear juice and sold as a wine in England and America, is called Babycham, a trademark taken from the baby chamois, a rare European mountain goat.

Pears are a delicate and perishable fruit that vary greatly in shape (from round to oval), in color (from yellow to green with reddish tinges) and in flesh (from soft to crisp). It is hard to describe the flavor of a pear. One Englishman wrote that it was like a full-bodied wine, hinted of spice, and had a trace of almond, rosewater or honey. Most pears have a rich aromatic flavor.

Pears are one of the few fruits that improve in flavor and texture when are picked green and hard and allowed to ripen off the tree. Buy pears that are firm and ripen them in the home for two to three days at room temperature until they yield at slight pressure.

Juicy sweet dessert pears are meant to be eaten raw. They must be watched carefully and eaten as soon as ripened. Good accompaniments are cheese and nuts. Cooking pears such as Anjou and Bosc should be firm and slightly unripe.

In England pears are pickled, in addition to being put up as conserves, relishes or chutneys. They are baked, poached, stewed, cooked in wine or syrups, used to make puddings, flans, tarts and cakes, wrapped in pastry and baked. Pears may be glazed and served with cream or stuffed and poached upright. Cooked pears may be served with ice cream, custard, chocolate and fruit sauces. All are attractive and delectable desserts.

Given below are recipes for three typical English pear desserts. POACHED PEARS WITH BERRY SAUCE (6 servings) 6 firm slightly unripen pears Juice of 1 lemon 1 cup sugar 1 1/2 cups water 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 package (10 or 12 ounces) frozen raspberries, partially thawed 1 tablespoon kirsch or other liqueur Whipped cream

Peel and halve pears. Scoop out cores and cut out stems. Rub with a little lemon juice to prevent darkening. Combine sugar, water, remaining lemon juice and vanilla in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cook briskly 5 minutes. Add pears and reduce heat. Simmer, covered, about 10 minutes, or until tender. Remove pears to a serving dish. Reduce syrup over high heat until thick. Pour over pears. Chill. Meanwhile, whirl raspberries in a blender or puree. Add kirsch or liqueur. Serve chilled pears toped with berries and whipped cream. (Serve pears with hot chocolate sauce or ice cream as a substitute for the berries, if desired.)

Note: It is impossible to give an exact time for poaching pears as the time depends on the texture of the pears and its ripeness. CARAMEL PEARS (6 servings) 3 large, firm, slightly under-ripe pears 6 tablespoons butter or margarine 6 tablespoons sugar 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger 1 cup heavy cream 1/2 cup toasted almond slices

Peel and halve pears. Scoop pit cores and cut out stems. Arrange in a shallow baking dish. Put 1 tablespoon butter or margarine and 1 tablespoon sugar in center of each pear half.

Sprinkle with ginger. Bake, covered, in a preheated 350-degree oven about 25 minutes, or until tender. Remove pears to a serving dish. Cook sugar-butter sauce over direct heat, stirring until it turns a deep golden brown. Stir in cream. Cook, stirring, for several seconds. Pour over pears. Sprinkle with almonds. Serve at once. GINGERED PEAR COMPOTE (6 servings) 2 cups water 2 cups sugar 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind Juice of 1 lemon 1 teaspoon ground ginger 6 firm slightly unripen pears, peeled and quartered 6 scoops vanilla ice cream 1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Combine water, sugar, lemon rind and juice, and ginger in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cook briskly 5 minutes. Add pears and cook about 7 minutes, or until tender. Remove pears to a bowl. Reduce syrup over high heat until thick. Pour over pears. Chill. To serve, put a scoop of ice cream in a serving dish. Top with pears and syrup. Sprinkle with nuts. Serve at once.