It started with a simple question, but the answer was to be anything but. In the Autumn of 2020, I e-mailed Jim Chapman of the National Perry Pear Centre to enquire about getting scions of Flakey Bark pear trees, one of many critically endangered varieties of perry pear in England. In the conversation that ensued, Jim asked “One other I am keen to trace is one referred to as the Turgovian pear in 1660, which I assume came from the German/Swiss area. Does the name resemble any of the pears known now”?
Now this was a really fascinating question, and one that had rather fortuitous timing. Turgovia in German is Thurgau, a Swiss Canton bordering on Lake Constance. It rang a bell. Earlier that year I was trying to identify a large perry pear tree near our house, estimated around 140 years old, and from which I’d made a single tree perry. The pomologist Mr. Schreiweis, who is in his 80s and specialises in pears, was having trouble identifying it, but suggested it might be Sülibirne. If it was, it’d be quite odd, as this is a variety more associated with the area around Lake Constance a good 250km south of our tiny village in North Baden. However, fresh in my mind was one of the synonyms for the Sülibirne: Thurgauer Mostbirne or, in English, Turgovian Perry Pear. Could it have been that easy? Well, of course not.
Our interest in the Turgovian pear stemmed, like many strange obsessions in things apple and pear, from old literature. This time John Evelyn’s Pomona, first published in 1664, and which I have described before on the pages of this website. Evelyn mentions the Turgovian pear only once, but seen in context of other writing both prior and after this publication, that mention belies the apparent weight carried by it at the time. In the first edition of his Pomona, 1664, Evelyn wrote:
“To delude none with promises, we do much rather recommend the diligence of inquiring from all Countries the best Graff’s [grafts] of such Fruits as are already found excellent for the purpose we design: As from the Turgovians for that Pear of which Mr. Pell gives so good and weighty informations.”
In 1678, John Worlidge, paraphrasing much of what appeared in earlier editions of Evelyn’s Pomona, also stated:
“Pears that are esteemed for their vinous Juice in Worcestershire and those adjacent parts; are the Red and Green Squash-pears, the John -pear, the Green Harpary, the Drake-pear, the Mary-pear, the Lullam pear: but above the rest are esteemed the Bosbury and the Bareland-pears, and the White and Red Horse-pear.
As for the Turgovian-pear that yields that most superlative Perry the world produces, mentioned in the Pomona of the most ingenious Mr. Evelin [sic], I only wish it were more generally dispersed.”
The most superlative perry the world produces? It must really have been something else if it was getting such a special mention, even in relation to the local English varieties that were so highly esteemed at that time.
But who was this Mr. Pell who had provided such weighty information, and what and why was he reporting about perry pears from Thurgau? Did he have anything else to say about them? It was time to try and find original sources.
Mr. Pell was John Pell, a mathematician and Cromwell’s political agent to the Swiss Cantons from 1654 to 1658. Pell had a long friendship with Samuel Hartlib, a German polymath settled in England, noted as a writer in the fields of science, medicine, agriculture, politics and education. Between 1630 and 1660 Hartlib had established a network of correspondents, almost like an early form of message board, with some of the deepest thinkers of the time. It was in many ways a precursor to the establishment of the Royal Society in 1660. By pure luck, I stumbled onto the Hartlib Papers, a collection available online where I found probably the earliest mentions of the Turgovian pear.
In a letter to Hartlib dated March 1658, Pell wrote (and here I’ve standardised spelling for ease of reading):
“Here you have what I wrote upon occasion of that from Mr B. [presumably John Beale] from Hereford. Jan.18. I long to see that discourse concerning English crabs, & wild pears, & the way of ordering those despised fruits, that their Juice may be raised to excel the wines of France. Some parts of Helvetia are full of vineyards, yielding great store of unpleasant white wine or Claret: In other parts of the country, the vines are killed by frosts & nipping blasts, from the snowy mountains. There they drink water, or whey or milk, which makes them larger limbed, & taller than their neighbours. Many places are full of wild cherry trees, one sort which is small, black, & sweet, is dried & kept in great chests in every Country-house, for the use of the table all the year. Some gather more than their family can eat in a year, because they can distil aqua vitæ out of them, which they sell in the market towns & cities in the Land-gravial of Turgo [Turgovia]. They make great store of perry, of a sort of very small pears, which (as I have heard) are hard, & full of very unpleasant juice, so that no man will eat one of them raw; but some boil them, & with I know not what cookery make a dish to help furnish a table. Some tell me that the Turgo Perry is of two sorts the one boiled to the height of a syrup, so that it becomes almost as thick, & as sweet as honey: The other sort unboiled & pretty clear”.
Two months later, on May 15, 1658, Pell wrote again from Zürich:
“Not long since one sent me a bottle of liquor whose colour smell & taste enticed me to pronounce it to be as good as muscatel as ever I had tasted. But he that sent it told me it was nothing but Turgowe [Turgovian] wine ten years old. That is to say it was the juice of the small ill-tasted pears of Turgoe [Turgovia, consistency of spelling clearly wasn’t so important then] pressed out by a wine press & then boiled until 2/3 were wasted. He had kept it ten years but every year he had filled up the vessel with new perry of the like sort fearing that otherwise it would lose all its spirits because they are wont to do so with Zurich wine which some keep in huge vessels many years till age have abated the sourness of it that at last it may deserve the Epithites of Plautus; annosum, edentulum”.
It should be noted that around that period, and in the preceding century, both English and German drinkers of wine were quite fond of Muscatel, so makers of cider sometimes took measures to enhance their own wines to mimic it as closely as they could (an experiment I aim to reconstruct in the coming year). So it’s no small praise that Pell would make that comparison. In the same letter, Pell expressed his admiration of the Turgovian pear and the advantages it could offer, if perhaps not the processes used, as well as his opinion that Herefordshire could be a model example to all countries making cider and perry:
“About a month hence it will be Zurich’s turn to send a Prefect to govern the Country of Turgow for two years. They have chosen their chief Secretary of state to be the man [who sent him the perry?]. He had of his own accord twice promised to make diligent inquiry concerning their whole manner of handling their perry & to send me a punctual description of it. He seems very sensible of the inestimable advantage which the Turgovians might make of their pear trees if they could save all that liquor which they now boil away and yet might make better drink & with more variety of taste & more fit for ordinary use than their counterfeit Muscatel. Which he hopes they may do & so may have something like the cider & perry of Herefordshire, of which I have promised to give him as full a relation as I can procure. In that [letter] of April the 9 he seems to intend another discourse with many particular directions fit for those that would practice. It will be no dishonour for Herefordshire to be made a pattern not only for England but also for all those countries that are capable of such fruits as will grow in England” [my emphasis].
What I like most about this excerpt is the fact that it makes clear there was a lot of potential exchange possible between nations, and an apparent willingness to learn on both sides for the sake of making better products or selecting the best varieties. Though the boiling of juice was still looked at a little askance.
Hartlib, being at the centre of a network of communication, passed on this information in letters to the likes of Robert Boyle and, as the initial letters suggest, to John Beale of Herefordshire, who also wrote contributions for Evelyn’s Pomona. It was either through Beale, or perhaps later directly through Hartlib, as they later corresponded prior to the formation of the Royal Society, that Evelyn became enamoured with the Turgovian pear, finally mentioning it in print six years after Pell’s letters to Hartlib. Though in 1662/1663, Pell spoke at the Royal Society, and it is entirely possible that Evelyn was present. This is recorded in the proceedings:
“Mr. Pell mentioning a sort of perry ten years old, which he had drank in Turgow, boiled till two thirds were wasted, and having a muscatel taste. Dr. MERRET Look occasion to say, that he conceived, that with the boiling a good quantity of spirits exhaled. But Dr. GODDARD was of opinion, that any wort, or must, or juice of apples or pears, & c. being boiled before they are fermented, or being put into a still, will only yield phlegm, and very little spirit”.
That was as much as I could trace in the literature about how Evelyn came to mention the Turgovian pear. But it told us little about what exact pear this could be, and Jim’s question if I knew of any varieties called Turgovian or similar had already become an all-consuming obsession.
As mentioned above, the Sülibirne came to mind first thanks to its synonym, Thurgauer Mostbirne. But the German literature I could find about it doesn’t seem to go back that far, only to 1854, so it’s quite likely that this well-described variety is not old enough to be our Turgovian Pear.
Thurgauerbirne and Thurgibirne are also seldom-heard synonyms for the Schweizer Wasserbirne. This is a very widespread variety first sold in Germany in the early 1800s, and it’s definitely not small, hard or ill-tasting so, again, not likely to be the one we want.
But I don’t give up that easily. Further searching on the internet and trawling through national collection databases finally led me to the accession lists held by the Swiss Department of Agriculture. There I found a pear called Thurgauerbirne (Turgovian Pear) and Thurgauer (simply Turgovian, as if things weren’t already confusing enough). Promising! I decided to send an e-mail to see if I could get more information on these varieties and acquire scions. I received a quick response from a very kind man, Mr. Kreis, who informed me I was looking at the old database, and who kindly sent me a link to the new database. He also kindly sent me an additional link to the Thurgauer Weinbirne (Turgovian Wine Pear). So now we had three possible candidates, all genetically distinct, but practically no additional information about them other than photos of the fruit. Nevertheless, I ordered scions from all of three varieties, which Mr. Kreis kindly sent at no cost, and grafted them in early 2020 along with others from England, Germany and Austria.
The chances of any of these being the Turgovian pear is extremely slim, given that there are probably dozens of pears originating from Thurgau, and any one of them could have been what Pell was told about and drank. However, in tying together some references while writing another article, I came across a letter from John Beale to Robert Boyle in 1672, in which he wrote:
“I have not yet heard, how the Turgovian pear thrives in England. Be pleased to review what Mr. Evelyn saith of it, in Pomona, pag. 13. Edit. 2. If they thrive, Mr. Evelyn is apt (at that motion) freely and generously to furnish you with a few grafts for Stalbridge [the manor in Dorset left to Boyle by his father, Lord Cork].”
What?! This clearly suggested that scions had been brought over to England, which would make sense if they were so enamoured with what Pell had told them. And sure enough, on page 13 of the second edition of Evelyn’s Pomona, published in 1670, Evelyn himself had expanded his previous paragraph mentioning the Turgovian pear (new part in bold):
“To delude none with promises, we do much rather recommend the diligence of inquiring from all Countries the best Grafts of such Fruits as are already found excellent for the purpose we design; as from the Turgovians for that Pear of which Mr. Pell gives so good and weighty informations. And of which I had presented me some grafts, together with a taste of the most superlative perry the world certainly produces; both which were brought near 800 miles, without suffering the least diminution of excellency, by my worthy friend Mr. Hake, a member of the R. Society, in the year 1666, and tasting as high, and as rich as ever to the present year I am writing this paragraph“.
Mr. Hake is likely to have been Theodore Haak, a German translator and one of the founding members of the Royal Society. In the proceedings of the Royal Society of London from 1664 it was recorded of Mr. Haak that:
“He intimating, that he had a friend in Helvetia, by whose means he could get some of the strong perry made in that country, was desired to procure some, together with the method of making and keeping it”.
Haak was a good friend of Pell, though by this time Pell was back in England after the Restoration, but it was presumably through Pell that this connection to the Swiss perry was forged. Sadly, I could find no record in the histories of the Society of the perry or scions being presented there.
Nor were any details to be gleaned from Evelyn’s diaries of this period, however it should be noted, that the Plague, the Second Anglo-Dutch War and witnessing the Great Fire of London kind of overshadowed mere pear trees and perry.
I wrote to Jim, sending him these references. I don’t know how I missed them the first time around, but could it be that this pear still grows in England, but with a localised name?
Jim responded: “With Beale so interested, it is possible he also obtained grafts. By then he was in Somerset, but he could well have passed some on to his Herefordshire associates, placing the Turgovian in the heart of perry territory”.
The possibility that this pear could possibly be already in England was astounding!
We still don’t know what happened to these scions that were grafted in 1666. Did they survive? Were they happy with the English climate? Had they been grafted by generation after generation, so that the genetic material held in so high esteem 370 years ago is still present in England, perhaps with a different name, its lauded heritage lost in time? Could there still be trees wherever Evelyn may have planted them, or around Stalbridge if Boyle received any?
But with some luck and a lot of help from modern techniques, maybe we can find out. DNA profiles moderated by the National Fruit Collection at Reading University and distributed by Fruit-ID are probably the very best tool for a project like this. The theory is that if the DNA profile of any of these candidate Turgovian pear trees matchs with a perry pear variety already present in England, then there’s at least a chance that it might be the one first written about by John Pell and brought over to England by Theodore Haak. We hope that we can put this to the test next Spring.
The past and future
But why is any of this important? In the nine months since I was asked a simple question, the search has occasionally taken over. It’s a fascinating rabbit hole to fall into, and the online tools available for even casual academic research these days makes searching old books and journals very easy, though there’s always another tempting branch to follow, eating up more hours on fascinating side stories.
But what always strikes me when researching topics like this is the networks of connectivity that academics had hundreds of years ago. A connectivity maintained even through plague, war, and disaster across the continent. The international connectiveness amazes even more so! With this always in the back of my mind, I take great pleasure in working on research that began with missives across Europe nearly 370 years ago, and I feel we I are honouring those same principles of international cooperation.
To take this a little further we (my wife and I) are also beginning an international perry pear project to play a small part in helping to preserve historically significant, rare or endangered perry pears, offering the chance to sponsor the planting of trees in a brand new traditional meadow orchard. This small project, run under the auspices of Kertelreiter Cider & Perry, will include some of those most highly esteemed English varieties mentioned in Evelyn’s Pomona as well as the candidates for the Turgovian pear. They might not be as famous as those English or German classics, yet, but are still worth the preservation. As per Evelyn’s chosen motto, omnia explorate, meliora retinete: Explore everything, keep the best.
But wouldn’t it be great to be able to again make the world’s most superlative perry? Let’s see what the future brings.