Pack your bags! In honor of life’s most delicious highways, we give you Hit the Road, Snack, our travel guide of things to eat, see, and do this summer from coast to coast.
There is no shortage of panoramic views on Oregon’s Highway 35, near the windsports mecca of Hood River. Snow-covered, volcanic peaks stand head and shoulders above the evergreen hills at every turn. Late summer last year, as I was driving through what’s called the “Hood River Valley Fruit Loop,” I noticed how the lush trees lining the road hung thick with pale green and golden pears.
Pears! If you’ve ever admired the sun-kissed specimens on a Harry & David catalog, you, like me, are among a special tribe of pear worshippers. And August is the first opportunity to glimpse their gorgeous forms in farmstand bins, their promise of just-right sweetness for our cheese boards, snacking out of hand, and fall desserts.
Wherever you buy your first Bartlett, Bosc, or Comice of the season, there’s a good chance it grew in Oregon. The official state fruit, pyrus communis or common pear, is among the state’s most prized fruit products, beating out sweet cherries, blueberries, and wine grapes in production quantity and dollar value.
And yet, a friend who lives in the Hood River area informed me that pears are like a second-class citizen during harvest, since no one gets the satisfaction of picking and eating them right off the tree, like they might with apples. (Having rented a Bing cherry tree in a nearby orchard for several years, climbing up its limbs to pick bucket fulls of fruit to turn into jam, soak in brandy, and eat fresh, I, too, am familiar with the pleasure of eating just-picked fruit.) But pears demand a unique kind of patience for any fresh fruit lover, since these heirlooms do not ripen on its trees. Hardy and long-ripening, Hood River pears are grown primarily for packing houses to ship all over the world.
Despite the Hood River Fruit Loop being flush with strawberries, blackberries, apricots, and peaches I could enjoy right then and there, I tuned in to the blushing, plump pears suspended within the orchard branches. It looked as if the framed antique French botanical pear prints that decorate the walls in my home had come to life. Even if I couldn’t eat them right away, I still pulled over at a handful of farm stands in order to pick pears from the tree myself, to save for later—slender Bosc pears and plump Anjous to eat through the late fall and winter, and petite Seckels for canning with cinnamon, cardamom and allspice. I was content to do the ripening in my own kitchen and envision the arugula salad and short crust tart to come.
Wherever you live, don’t wait to plan a late-summer trip to an orchard and farm stand near you. You’ll experience the transition of the seasons with the greatest variety of fruits fresh off a plant or to pack home for snacking, baking and preserving. If you’re in the Hood River Valley area and would like to gather some pears—or apples and other in-season fruits—at any point in between late summer through fall, here’s where to go:
Just outside the charming hamlet of Parkdale, this orcharned is owned by Randy Kiyokawa, a third-generation orchardist renowned by Portland chefs. His roadside farm stand boasts over 100 varieties of pears, Asian pears, and apples open through December. It’s the largest U-pick orchard along the 35-mile Hood River Valley Loop.
However, Kiyokawa doesn’t offer any pears for U-pick at his farm, because of the short window for pear picking. “Pick them green and they won’t have sugar. Pick them too late they’ll get mealy or they won’t ripen up correctly,” Kiyokawa warned me. But there were still plenty of summer pears to be picked from the farm’s ever-brimming bins, so I loaded up on green and red Bartletts and Starkrimson. Later will come winter pears, including Comice (the variety Harry & David branded “Royal Riviera”), brown-skinned Bosc, tiny Seckel, and long-storing red and green Anjou (pronounced “on-ju”).
Just 10 miles down the highway from Kiyokawa’s, Packer Orchards & Bakery had loads of fruit and several U-pick sites nearby. Pears are the main fruit grown on this 100-acre, four-generation family farm, and the stand offers everything pear—from pear-berry pies to pear-sweetened jams and baked goods sweetened with pear concentrate—for hungry fruit seekers.
“It’s not an immediately gratifying piece of fruit,” Tammi Packer said about the pear. Their ripening involves knowing when the carbohydrates have converted to sugars so that it’s perfectly sweet after a few days at room temperature. How to tell? Press with your thumb on the neck and as soon as it yields, she showed me, and it’s ready to eat. A lot of people wait too long and the pears over-ripen. A little crispness is good.
Summer pears, like Bartlett, don’t keep very well, but Packer told me that a Comice picked in September and stored cold would be perfect by Thanksgiving. I gazed at a tree of this plump specimen, called the champagne of pears, thinking about how they’d make a stunning centerpiece for my table and an easy appetizer sliced with blue cheese, walnuts and local honey over the holidays.
And along with ripening tips, Packer held out hope. The family was testing out a pear variety called Gem. A cross between Comice and Seckel, it ripens on the branch so you can pick it off the tree when it’s ready to eat. Only one problem: “Pears are grown for their heirs,” I’d been told, which meant that it would be at least 2021 before I could just show up to pick and eat a Gem for myself.
Another drop-dead gorgeous orchard setting complete with alpine views is Mt. View Orchards, which I found by word of mouth. In the fruit stand, I took in all the fruits, plus the hard ciders and donuts produced by this family operation. Yes, fruit growing is a whole family affair in this community filled with enthusiastic tree fruit tutors, like owner Trina McAlexander who often escorts guests into her orchard.
“We try to open up our farm like a giant living room and offer an intimate experience,” she said.
And guess what: For 50 cents a pound, I could have my fill of pears from the trees. To pick a pear, you just grab it from the bottom and snap up and it breaks off readily at the top of the stem. Still, I’d have to wait to taste one, but the experience was gratifying.
Other fruit pickers lingered with picnics and drinks, spending the day in this idyll, a popular wedding site. Wishing I’d brought a hat against the strong August sun, I grew thirsty and walked out of the orchard, my shoes looking they were finely dusted with cocoa-powder. I had my pears in hand, and I was hungry for them.
A Quesadilla in Pear-adise
The Gorge White House, an arresting 32-acre estate less than five minutes from downtown Hood River, was my respite. With the harvest moving into full swing, it was bustling with families eating ice cream, toting bouquets of U-pick flowers and fresh-picked apples.
I aimed for the wine and cider bar for a taste of the house-made pear-lemon cider. Made from Bosc pears, it was crisp and effervescent. Fermented fruits have started flowing from this valley, along with packed pears, and I could easily make a day of cider tasting. But visiting orchards is a lot like wine tasting: three is just enough, and I was ready for something to eat.
There was a line at the food truck, staffed by the owner’s son, Jack, a Cordon-Bleu-trained chef. In no hurry, I sat on the patio to wait for my pear, bacon and goat cheese quesadilla in the full late-summer splendor. On this day, at last, I could have my pears and eat them, too.
- 3 slices thick bacon, diced
- Four (10-inch) flour tortillas
- 2 cups cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese
- 1/2 cup cup crumbled goat cheese
- 1 firm ripe Bartlett, Bosc, Comice or Anjou pear, peeled and thinly sliced
Are you excited for pear season, too? Let us know in the comments below.