Greenlands Farm’s Pears Bring Magic
Greenlands Farm’s pear orchard creates an abundance of fruit that’s perfect for Heather Burkert’s kitchen magic.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Lindsey A. Miller
Purchasing a soggy parcel of land with the intention of creating a sustainable farm is a scary prospect, but the Burkerts did it anyway.
First they got grading equipment and contoured the land for optimum drainage, retention and water use. Then they planted a pear orchard. Over time, by adding various crops and farm animals that nourish each other, they achieved Greenlands Farm in Bolivia, which produces, among other things, a mighty harvest of pears.
Nutritious and delicious, pears are better suited to this part of the state than their cousins, the apples, explains Heather Burkert. Pears don’t get nearly the attention and marketing dollars that apples do, but, in fact, anything you can do with an apple, you can with a pear.
If necessity is the mother of invention, a ton of ripe pears is the test. Heather pairs cut pears with fresh figs in salad (both fruits ripen about the same time), and adds grated pears to just about anything. As the resident baker at Greenlands Farm, she is known for her talent using only fresh ingredients. She takes advantage of ripe pears’ natural sweetness to make pies and tarts. She also preserves them, dries them in a commercial dryer, or used them to make jam, pear butter or mincemeat. A contemporary twist on classic spiced pears is Heather’s Pear Chai Jam, a golden concoction with flecks of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and black pepper.
“You can always find a use for something in season,” she says. “That’s how traditional recipes were born, creating with whatever was coming out of the field at the time.”
On baking days, Heather is elbow deep in organic flour, sometimes gluten-free flour, assembling crusts and fillings made from ingredients direct from the farm. Her pear pie with accents of port wine has a devoted following, as does her French tart, a puddle of rich pastry cream topped with a fan of sliced ripe pears.
“Not many people know how to make pastry cream,” she says. “It’s not sweet at all. We don’t over-sugar things. If you use good ingredients and you choose varieties for their flavor, you just need to let the flavor come out.”
America embraces pie on special occasions, especially holidays, but not so long ago pies were practically a staple in farm life. Even urban dwellers had pie safes before refrigeration and the pie filling reflected whatever was regionally available or abundant.
“My ancestors were farmers and they ate pie for breakfast, sort of the early version of a Pop-Tart, except better because they used what they had,” Heather says.
Kellogg marketed Pop-Tarts as a “toaster pastry” in 1964, decades after most Americans had forgotten about pie as a breakfast food, and sales have increased in each of the past 32 years, the company reports. Surely, a seasonal pear tart made with fresh ingredients and only a pinch of sugar in a cream and egg custard deserves a place at the breakfast table, too.
The American Pie Council, which wants to see a pie slice on every plate, surveys consumers annually and finds a consistent preference for apple. Even at Thanksgiving, apple pie wins the day. Chocolate pie comes in second, and pear, well, it doesn’t even make the list. Pears, it seems, are misunderstood.
Historically they had issues to overcome, too. In 18th-century Europe, where today’s apples and pear stocks originated, only nobility could afford the delicate-skinned, buttery-flavored pears. Picking season was short, supply was limited and transportation was impossible. Scarcity breeds status, which explains why Renaissance still-life paintings — funded by noblemen — featured shapely pears amid clusters of grapes. It probably also explains why your true love during that same era might consider a partridge in a pear tree a valuable gift on par with, say, ten lords a leaping. Pears were precious.
In the 1800s, when Britain had more than 700 varieties of pears, American Colonists were still struggling to get a strong crop, though they may have been more interested in fruit for hard cider than pie. Settlers eventually took tree stock to the Pacific Northwest, where the climate was perfect for pears nearly year-round. Today, Washington and Oregon produce 80 percent of grocery store pears, according to USA Pears, a growers group. Like Heather, chefs in that part of the country have learned to incorporate pears into every course.
In eastern North Carolina, it’s not unusual to see pear trees in older neighborhoods and in the countryside where farms once stood, but there’s more to pear production than owning a pear tree, Heather explains. Like apples, pears require two varieties in order to cross pollinate, a task usually tackled by bees. Pollination happens on the blossoms of fruiting buds in springtime, earlier for pears than apples, so a late spring frost can damage the crop. This is the gamble the Burkerts accepted 15 years ago when they started the orchard.
They chose Kieffer, and old variety that’s good for jams and preserves, less popular for munching raw, and Moonglow, a softer, juicier, flavorful pear. Like everything else that grows at Greenlands, their pear trees are pesticide free, thanks to roaming chickens that peck at insects and then naturally fertilize the area in which they feed. Yield increases with proper pruning, a task for Henry Burkert, a certified arborist.
In a good season, when nature cooperates, the orchard will produce about 16 bushels of pears — that’s just shy of 1,000 pounds. You have to get creative in a hurry when they’re ready to pick, just before they ripen. Unlike apples that stop ripening when picked, pears should be picked when mature but not fully ripe. If you wait till one falls from the tree, you’ve waited too long.
“There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat,” a quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, is close to the truth. Fortunately, Heather knows when it’s time to pick. She leaves them to ripen for a few days, and then she puts on her apron and gets to work.
Want to go?
Greenlands Farm Store
668 Midway Road SE, Bolivia.