Washington, D.C. has its cherry blossom festival; Portland and Texas do roses. There’s a Hempfest in Seattle, and I’m always stunned by the profusion of color at the Tulip Festival in Holland, Michigan. I’ve been to the Pumpkin Festival in Circleville, Ohio and the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California. Gourmands are sure to find the Banana Split Festival in Wilmington, Ohio and the Buffalo Wing Festival in … yeah, Buffalo. For almost twenty years, our family marked the arrival of autumn (such as it was) in Carpinteria, California with the annual Avocado Festival, offering fun, frolic, and the world’s largest guacamole pit.
My corner of the world these days, Oregon’s Rogue Valley, is known for pears. The most celebrated source of mail ordered holiday gift pears is Harry and David Holdings, Inc. whose corporate offices remain in Medford, Oregon although its parent organization, 1-800 Flowers.com exists somewhere in the digi-verse with offices in Carle Place, New York. Harry and David may be the best known, perhaps only known, pear outfit, but this valley is chock-a-block with pear people and pear orchards, many of which bring pears to table through a variety of outlets. More than 7000 tons a year are picked by suppliers to Harry and David.
I am probably biased in my appreciation of the pear, surrounded as we are by orchards watered by Bear Creek, but pears are constantly in the news. Stop by Men’s Fitness, for example, to read “The New Super Fruit”, a rhapsodic paean to pears as snack and workout recovery food. Cooking Light touts pears slathered with almond butter as the snack of the future. Nutritionists, body-builders, doctors, chefs – all jump on the pear wagon as a grateful nation learns there’s something better than an apple a day. Pears are among the fruits highest in fiber, contain folate and boron, calcium, manganese, potassium, and copper, as well as Vitamins C, K, B2, and B3.
All of which amplifies the primacy of pears in southern Oregon and the significance of the Pear Blossom Festival held in Medford in early in April. The Festival has grown in recent years to include a parade attracting almost 30,000 visitors and more than 150 entries, the Pear a Fare, the Smudge Pot Tour, a celebration of artisan food and wine in a valley boasting a number of highly regarded vineyards, the Pedals and Pears bicycle race, and the Pear Blossom Golf Tournament.
The festival’s most storied event, however, is the Pear Blossom Run, first organized in 1977, won that year by Frank Shorter, Olympic Gold Medalist. The Pear Blossom Run was the first race in Oregon to have a limited field, attracting 750 runners in 1978 and quickly became one of the most successful races in the Northwest. Today’s festival offers a highly competitive ten-mile race, a 5K race benefiting the Rogue Valley Medical Center, a wheelchair division, and 1 and 2 mile fun runs. More than 5000 runners in all take to the roads including premiere runners from across the nation.
The difference between this festival and some of the others is that while garlic is pretty much always a part of the Gilroy experience, essentially an inescapable part of landing anywhere within twenty miles of Gilroy, and while Carpinteria is pretty much decked with avocados throughout the year, there haven’t been many blossoms in the Rogue Valley since the end of October. Yes, we have evergreen forests of conspicuous beauty and solemnity, and yes, we have mountain peaks glistening with fresh snowfall even into April, but the daily experience of driving to and from any point on the valley floor has presented great tracts of agricultural land swathed in gray and brown.
Pear blossoms are more subtle than the rampant reds, pinks, and purples popping at roughly the same time from assorted fruit trees and bushes. They might be lost in the general frenzy of April bloom were it not for their number and concentration. A good-sized orchard presents row after row of pear trees, disappearing into the horizon. As we have many good sized orchards and a few gargantuan orchards, the cumulative effect of moving past rank after rank of pear trees in blossom is the impression of being swaddled in an enormous, puffy blanket of variegated white and green.
Then, there are the pears to come. Not for a few months, of course, but the promise of pears is enough for now. Pears are generous fruits; they ripen off the tree and stand up exceedingly well to refrigeration. Unlike their cousins, the apples, the relative sweetness of an individual pear is markedly different when eaten at various stages of ripeness. The most obvious example is the Comice pear, sweet and crisp when first ripe and sloppily juicy and, to my taste, unseemingly sweet when allowed to ripen fully. Harry and David call this pear The Royal Riviera, and it is the jewel in the pear giant’s diadem. Most gift boxes present a Comice crisp and ready to eat at Thanksgiving, sweet, quite a bit juicier at Christmas, and still ripe but ready to liquefy by the middle of January, unless the recipient gives the pear some time-out in the fridge.
Although we see only a few varieties here in the Rogue Valley, there are more than 3000 grown around the world, some of which came with the Pilgrims to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and were planted by 1620.
Your grocery store is most likely to offer Bartlett pears, which is a piece of good luck as most varieties do not change color as they ripen whereas the Bartlett is green when newly picked and increasingly yellow as it ripens. Those who like a crisp pear that is not over-sweet pick the green Bartlett. Fanciers of a faceful of sweet juice wait until the Bartlett has yellowed. Another relatively commonly available pear, the Anjou, green or red, keeps its hue throughout its lifespan, remaining fairly crisp and only moderately more sweet as it ages.
Pear blossoms don’t last long; lovely and ephemeral, they are gone by the end of the second week of April. As we drive the back roads, vineyards are still strung with ropy brown cords, but pear orchards are greening and starting the work of growing fruit to be picked by the middle of a hot Oregon summer. The Pear Blossom Festival is a celebration of beauty marking the eager anticipation of another bountiful season of pears.
Promise made. Promise kept.