Paul and YoungSuk Estabrook sell 14 varieties of juicy, organic, Asian pears at Virginia Gold Orchard in the Shenandoah Valley, in Natural Bridge, Va. The season runs from August to December. From now until the end of the year, five kinds will be available:
ARIRANG Also known as Korean Giant, the extra large, Arirang is orange-brown in color. Very firm and crisp, it's considered one of the sweetest with up to 20 percent sugar content.
ATAGO With golden-to-orange, rough, mottled skin, the pretty Atago has unusually white flesh. The flavor is sweet with a slight tartness and a hint of citrus.
SHINKO A large, thin-skinned, golden brown fruit with a red blush. The sweet, exceedingly juicy flesh has a slight nutty flavor.
SINGO The large, smooth-skinned Singo (also known as Niitaka), is orange-brown with a hint of green. The flesh is coarse, watery and not as sweet as other varieties.
WINTER GOLD A new variety created by YoungSuk Estabrook, Winter Gold is bright orange in color. The texture is crisp and the flavor sweet and slightly spicy. Limited availability beginning in mid-December.
Mail orders are accepted. A 10-pound box shipped to a mid-Atlantic state address, is approximately $37. If you visit, call ahead for pear availability. Some varieties sell out before others. The packing shed is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Monday. A 14-pound box of pears costs $22. 100 Asian Pear Way, Natural Bridge, Va. Call 540-291-1481; see www.virginiagoldorchard.com.
Directions: Take Interstate 66 West toward Front Royal, merge onto I-81 South at exit 1A, on the left, toward Roanoke. At exit 180B, turn right onto U.S. Route 11 North toward Fancy Hill. Virginia Gold Orchard is one mile ahead on the left.
In the produce aisle, how do you tell if an Asian pear is ripe and ready to eat? European varieties of pears, such as the Bartlett, are picked when they are hard and improve in texture and flavor thereafter. The Asian pear remains firm to the touch when ripe. It's ready to eat right off the tree.
Choose fruits that are heavy for their size and unblemished. (The mottled skin may not look tender but it is easily bruised and discolored.) Most importantly, choose pears that are fragrant. "That's the best way to tell, by the aroma. They should smell sweet," says Paul Estabrook, co-owner of Virginia Gold Orchard in Natural Bridge. If possible, sample the pear before purchase. Unripe pears are bland. A sweet-tasting pear is a ripe pear. Store pears in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator where they will keep for one month or more. Never leave an Asian pear on, let's say, a windowsill to ripen because the fruit will ferment.
Asian pears are available at supermarkets and specialty grocers. A good source for Asian pears is large, Asian supermarkets, such as Super H in Fairfax.
-- Walter Nicholls