Those who know me or who follow my Twitter feed know that I have a bit of an obsession with pear trees, particularly perry pear trees. I grew up in Dublin, not exactly famous for its perry pear trees, though we did have two pear trees in our long narrow suburban back garden.
It wasn’t till we moved to Germany, finally settling in the small village of Schefflenz at the northern tip of the state of Baden-Württemberg, that apple and pear trees took on more significance in my life. When we started making our own cider in 2012, using apples and pears from trees for which we had purchased harvest rights for the princely sum of €10, we didn’t foresee that this was the beginning of something that would eventually play a large part in our lives. A couple of years later we bought the first of our orchard plots, populated with trees planted in the late 1950s, and things started getting more serious. Over the next few years, the volume of cider we produced was increasing to the point that it seemed to make sense selling it to try to support the costs of our meadow-sowing and tree planting activities. But the pears still played somewhat of a second fiddle, mostly being added to ciders to introduce tannins, as is tradition in this region, or distilling the results to make pear schnapps as a secondary product.
So what started my perry pear tree obsession? Although we had started planting specific old German Mostbirne (perry pear) varieties at our orchard, I think it was getting a dog (Anu, also from Ireland) in 2018 that really opened my eyes to the pear tree as more than just a source of fruit to make a very nice drink from.
Perry pear trees are virtually everywhere here, sprinkled across the landscape, and I was aware of them in a kind of passing way without considering what they truly represented. Walking with Anu away from the well-travelled roads, taking the Feldwege (field tracks) that are usually only used by farmers on their tractors, I was struck by the number of impressively large pear trees dotting the landscape. Of course, there were apple trees too, usually found as the occasional row surviving between tillage, or small stands and orchards. But the large solitary trees strewn between or sometimes standing in the middle of fields tended to be pear trees. I began taking photos of them through the seasons. I bought a special tape for measuring the diameter and an app to roughly estimate the age range. I began to choose walking routes I’d never taken just to see if I would find another pear tree hidden in a hedge or on the edge of a woods. And I usually did! So I began to map them and now have over 200 dots marking pear trees within a few of kilometres of the village. But more importantly, I was coming to realise that they were a mere skeleton of a landscape that was largely destroyed in the 1950s, in our region at least.
A lost landscape
Rural Germany used to use an open field system stemming from the Medieval period, the so-called Gewann system. The countryside was divided into named Gewanne which were further split into strips that were farmed. Long, narrow strips to minimise the number of times the plough had to be turned. To make the most use of the land it was common to plant fruit trees between strips. These were especially common along trackways and roads, almost a kind of early agroforestry. The fruit of these trees provided a valuable side-crop that we will return to later, but one can almost imagine such a landscape, criss-crossed with apple and pear trees, rich with nature and full of bounty.
Looking at the modern cadastre maps, these land parcel strips often still exist, especially close to villages, but in the 1950s in our region, there was a kind of rationalisation of farmland, the Flurbereinigung. This process involved exchanges of land and a kind of rounding of the corners to make bigger, contiguous fields more suitable for increased mechanisation and the economic demands of modern farming. This resulted in a complete transformation of the landscape. Tracks were removed, new roadways instated, and farms moved from the village centre to settlements on the periphery. With all these changes the trees were mostly removed. I am confident that our own orchard (and a handful of other communal orchards like it around the village) were planted as compensation for the number of trees that were obliterated, as the farmers still needed to make their Most, as cider is called around here. In a grim twist, these larger orchards were split into plots, each a 10 by 200 metre strip, almost like a parody of the lost open field system.
However, remnants of this lost landscape remain in the pear trees. While any remaining apple trees have mostly perished without being replaced, the long-lived pear trees still mark former boundaries, often standing strong in the middle of a field, despite close and deep ploughing.
Pears for perry
The question remained: what were these magnificent trees being used for? In living memory, Apfelmost (cider) was made by almost every farmer in our village. However, there was little evidence in the local culture for Birnenwein/Birnenmost (perry), though old men and women of the village would often stop in passing while I was pressing, and ask if I was putting a bucket or two of perry pears into the press, confirmation of this local practice continuing into modern times. But, sure enough, perry was an important drink in previous centuries, though not so well documented in this region as in other German-speaking areas like parts of Switzerland or Austria. With some of the pear trees in our immediate area bearing names like Bayrische Weinbirne (Bavarian wine pear), Luxemburger Mostbirne, Kirchensaller Mostbirne and Oberösterreicher Weinbirne, it was nonetheless pretty clear that at least some pears had been planted specifically for their perry-making reputations. Interestingly, held in even higher regard than the class of Weinbirne was the so-called Bratbirne class. This group of pears literally translates as “baked pear” which, according to Dr. Duttendorfer in 1845,
“…when properly treated, produce a perry that not only surpasses any other fruit wine in quality but, when properly prepared, gives a product that is almost indistinguishable from champagne”.
Pears for more than perry
Given the number of trees around the village, and the apparent lack of awareness of perry in the local living memory, there had to be a deeper story! What proved most enlightening on the use of pears in rural Germany was delving into centuries old literature away from the usual pomonas or pomological texts. A German handbook on farm trade from 1806 revealed that pear trees, in particular, had huge value for farmers. Feeding pigs a diet of acorns and pears fattened them much quicker than an autumn diet of acorns alone. Perry pears made good vinegar, and indeed some (like the Wasserbirne) were reputed to make the best. Some varieties, in a class called Dörrbirne (drying pears), were favoured for drying, to store and extend use throughout the year as a source of sugar for households or rehydrated as a feedstuff for pigs. The highlight to me, and the most labour-intensive process, was to render the juice of pears down to a syrup, Kraut, for use by the “common people” as a sweetener (before sugar beet took over) and as a jam-like spread for bread. This process, that could take two days cooking over a fire, was incredibly labour-intensive, but clearly considered well worth it, so the energy of the pears could be conserved and used throughout the year. In Switzerland there are still festivals that celebrate this, although the modern version, Birnel, is probably not so labour intensive as the traditional methods used even half a century ago.
This narrative from the past, describing how the “gemeinen Mann”, the common man, made so many uses from a single type of fruit was wonderful, and helped fill a gap in my curiosity. It was clear that pears had played an almost vital role in rural German life. This further explained the prevalence of old pear trees in the spaces between villages, some standing, keeping watch on the changes over 200 years. Some not so fortunate. But there is always a surprise somewhere, like the row of 14 mature pear trees I “discovered” last December, buried in a large hedgerow behind the local archery club. The trees formed a line that marks an abandoned trackway, recorded on maps from 1870. Now it is close to the time to return and try and identify what varieties they are.
Putting them to use
Being a cider and perry maker, thoughts will always return to “can I make a good perry from these”. The severe drought conditions in 2019 meant that our apple crop was not looking great, so my eyes turned to these big old perry pear trees in the surrounding landscape as a means to fill our fermenters. We reached out to farmer friends to ask permission to harvest the fruit that would otherwise just rot on the sides of fields and tracks and, often unsure what varieties they were, started making in-press blends based on taste and a little bit of blind intuition. This worked out rather well, but also began another quest to begin trying to identify what varieties these pears are. And that’s not an easy task. But there’s a frisson of excitement when you discover the true name of a tree. Like the chaotic-growing tree I noticed in passing at a junction, the first and only Weilersche Mostbirne, a variety that is now seldom found, that I’ve identified around here. To pick up a pear and think “I know you” and check a box that all too often remains empty is a nice feeling.
The fact that some named varieties have such a long history is something that is wonderous to me. That you can hold a piece of wood, a scion ready to graft onto a rootstock, and realise that this is essentially the same tree, like a piece of a single lifeform spread over time and space that generations of humans have held and carried out the same action on for hundreds of years. It’s the only way to preserve a variety, and a task I have willingly thrown myself into.
Our fascination with varieties of long heritage and respected reputation has led us to plant varieties like the Palmischbirne (first described in 1598), the Sommerblutbirne (mentioned in France in 1675) and the Champagner Bratbirne (originating around 1760). This ties in with our grafting activities, which we started in 2020, specifically trying to seek out endangered varieties from our region and beyond. This year we have grafted some of the legendary pear varieties, already well renowned in mid-17th Century Britain and listed in Evelyn’s Pomona: the Barland, the Lullam Pear, the Harpury Green (now Hartpury Green) and more, all in an attempt to spread the risk and keep their genetic material alive. Not to mention the possibly ridiculous Quest for the Turgovian Pear, of which I have already written.
Community in perry
It is important to keep the past in mind while keeping an eye on the future. As mentioned above, perry pears have a long history and quite some significance, especially in England. Literature dating back to the 16th Century gives us insights on how perry had such standing that, for a century or so, it was considered an important alternative to imported wine, and there was certainly a desire to increase production and make the likes of Hereford an example in the world of wine. But these historical references also provide a salutary lesson on how tastes change. With the fortunes of perry waxing and waning, the very trees that have for centuries provided their fruit to make this remarkable drink are now being forgotten, with some varieties now reduced to a handful of specimens, standing in lonely solitude as the years take their toll.
These excursions into the past, reading letters written between luminaries of science and culture, talking with as much love as I have for the perry pear, brought back to me how important community is for keeping these traditions alive, preserving these unique varieties of fruit. Even over those centuries often plagued by war and, well, actual plague, people sharing a common interest found ways to communicate and share, shaping the very concept of perry, cross-fertilising ideas of what fruit to use and methods of making to create the very best expressions. My experience in community across borders mirrors theirs. To quote Evelyn himself, from his Pomona in 1664:
“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”.
There is still so much to discover, and it is no wonder that some people make it their life’s work. For us, we can only try to play a part in helping conserve varieties and maintain traditions, bringing them to a new audience, if possible. To that end, we have started the journey on a project, imaginatively titled the International Perry Pear Project (for now), in which we will create a meadow where we can plant a traditional Streuobstwiese dedicated to rare or endangered perry pears from Germany, Switzerland, Austria and England, almost a nod to the spirit of Pell, Hartlib, Beale and Evelyn. With about 100 trees grafted this year it’s still just a drop in the ocean. I’d encourage any maker or grower not already doing so, to look at your local pear (and apple) heritage, and the broader context, and to make a little room dedicated to preserving these old varieties. You might not reap the rewards yourself, but pears for the heirs, as they say.
Article originally written for Grqftwood Magazine, but published here first by kind permission of editors James Forbes and Albert Johnson.
 Duttenhofer, Dr. F. M.: Die gegohrenen Getränke Bier, Wein, Obstmost und Meth. Stuttgart 1845.
 Neuenhahn, Carl Christian Adolph: Anleitung zum Landwirtschaftlichen Handel. Erfurt 1806.