What is left of the large centennial pear tree is its stump, trunk and a few pips. Should we have preserved this tree of the Curé pear cultivar in the interests of agriculture?
The large centennial pear tree felled on 11 March 2020 in a private garden of Aurillac’s town centre has been through a century and a half of history to end up disregarded by our contemporaries. We assess this loss of a local heritage asset.
In this article, we consider agriculture. Is the Curé pear variety the tree belonged to of interest to fruit producers and the scientists who select the best cultivars?
To start with, what is a variety? Through millennia of agricultural practice, varieties, or cultivars, have been selected from the wild specimens humans discovered and then reproduced. “Humans have selected plants, by choosing the features useful to them. They created numerous variants of existing plants, from the variability between individuals within the same species. We call them varieties” (my own translation of Pastorelli 2009, in Leterme 2014, p 26). This is why we are now able to produce the large sweet cherries that we eat raw, like the Burlat, as well as the sour morello cherries that we cook1. These cultivars have been created and improved over generations through various processes of selection and breeding.
When the Croqueurs de pommes du Cantal made me aware of the existence of this pear tree in 2016, they told me it probably was of the Curé variety. The poire du Curé (the vicar’s pear) is a heritage cooking pear, common in the old orchards of France, where it can be found under various names like Belle de Berry or Bon Papa. It also grows in the United Kingdom where it is known as the Vicar of Winkfield2. According to André Leroy3, the pear approximately dates back to 1760 (Leroy 1867, pp 610).
Checking the variety proved straightforward. The russet line drawn from the stalk to the eye on some fruits, a distinctive feature of the Curé pear (Kessler 1949, p 111), was easy to spot on the centennial tree’s fruit.
The other visible features leave no room for doubt. The stalk is four to five centimetres long, thin, fibrous, curved and twisted… often oblique, pushed aside by a nipple of flesh (see the middle fruit). At the bottom of the pear the eye is wide, open. The sepals (bottom left drawing) are long and narrow. Close-knit at their base they spread in the shape of a star (Kessler 1949, p 111). Zooming into the pear to the right of the photo enables to see how consistent the large pear tree’s fruits are with this description. Incidentally, the reader will notice the accurate language of pomology, the science of cultivated fruit, which helps us figure out all the details of the fruit.
The question of the Curé pear’s flesh quality is more problematic. I didn’t have a chance to taste the tree’s fruits: the windfalls I collected were not ripe and I was not in a position to keep them until they were. What was the texture like? Was it crunchy, juicy? How did it taste? Were the pears better eaten raw or cooked? I couldn’t try them.
The full identification of a fruit cultivar also encompasses the characteristics of the tree. Great vigour with weeping and bending under the fruits’ weight (Leterme & Lespinasse 2008, p 288) clearly reminded me of Aurillac’s tree. No doubt, it was a typical specimen of Curé pear.
The Conservatoire Végétal Régional d’Aquitaine5, which preserves and promotes the South-West of France’s fruit heritage, researched the potential contribution of the Curé pear to the future of fruit cultivation. In their book Les fruits retrouvés, patrimoine de demain, its founder Evelyne Leterme6 and Jean-Marie Lespinasse7present the Curé pear as an interesting potential breeding parent because of a particular mode of fructification of the tree (Leterme & Lespinasse 2008, pp 606-608). Thus, according to the authors, the Curé pear would help create interesting new cultivars.
The pear tree of the Curé variety consistently produces fruit year after year (p 288). This is a specific characteristic which would allow, through cross-breeding, to improve other pear cultivars which alternate, meaning that they tend to only produce every two years (p 606). It would allow fruit farmers to improve pear production by ensuring a consistent volume of fruit supply to their customers every year.
The Curé variety is also of interest for other reasons. The tree is known for being vigorous and fertile. The 19th century pomologist Alphonse Mas tells us that cultivated as a high-stem standard tree, it grows high and takes time to start and produce (seven to eight years). However, the tree then becomes remarkably fertile (Mas 1875, p 87). Aurillac’s centenary pear tree was a good example of this fertility and this consistency: it produced a lot of fruit every year.
A standard tree is a type of tree that has been designed in nurseries to grow vigorously and without limits. A dwarf tree generally doesn’t grow more than three to four metres high, which among other advantages allows for an easy harvest. The high-stem standard pear tree grafted on a seedling rootstock, especially of a vigorous cultivar like the Curé, can reach fifteen meters. The Aurillac tree was that high before it was pruned down in 2018. These high-stem trees, dumped with the development of intensive farming, are now recommended as a solution for organic farming in low density meadows orchards8.
The Curé pear tree has also been used to produce dwarf trees. Seventy years ago, it was reported to be used on double-grafted trees as an interstock between a quince rootstock and an otherwise incompatible pear variety (Société Pomologique de France 1947, p 284). In other words, these trees were made of three parts. The roots were from a quince, the trunk was Curé pear wood and the crown from a sought after dessert pear variety. The Curé played a mitigating role in this elaborate process.
However, the Curé pear cultivar has its downside. In the valleys of South West France, Evelyne Leterme noticed its sensitiveness to scab, which stains and deforms the fruit, making it hard to sell. Resistance to scab is a top priority in the breeding programme for pear cultivars9 of INRAE, France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment10. Thus we can understand why the Conservatoire Végétal Régional d’Aquitaine has not invested in further research on the Curé variety since 2008 and doesn’t recommend it to producers.
The quality of its fruit is also considered as average by many. In a recent phone conversation with Evelyne Leterme, she told me the flesh was grainy and hardly melting, which didn’t make it a dessert pear. Long acclaimed as one of the best cooking pears, its Unique Selling Point in nurseries’ trade communication, it has nonetheless always had its critics. Abbot Coumoul, vicar of the small mountain village of Séries in 19th century Cantal, says in his book Le jardin d’Auvergne that the Curé pear is praised by some and disregarded by others. He praised it. (Abbé Coumoul 1886, p58). Alphonse Mas had already mentioned that the value of Curé pear fruit had been the topic of many disputes. He recognised that the soil and mainly the season had a big influence on its quality (Mas 1875, p 88). We might discuss further the quality of this fruit and its use in gastronomy in another article. Views are diverse, and sometimes inspired by deeply embedded cultural heritage. Raymond Blanc, the popular French chef in the UK who recently planted 2,500 fruit trees around his British hotel restaurant to supply its two Michelin star table is a good example. In his book The Lost Orchard, he praises his mum’s “most delicious poire du curé au vin rouge” (Blanc 2019, p 199).
Overall, the Curé pear isn’t to everyone’s taste. Should we have preserved Aurillac’s tree anyway? Trees planted by previous generations are in my view an element of local heritage which, if well used, can increase the value of a territory and reinforce its dynamics. Old but still vigorous and fertile fruit trees can for instance serve as catalysts for the development of a local production of fruit and derived food products. The Poiré Domfront Protected Designation of Origin, with its majestic multi-centennial pear trees in Normandy is a good example of this11.
Aurillac’s large pear tree was just one tree, part of a long gone local food production system which disappeared with the urbanisation of the Western part of the city. As such, it didn’t produce much. However, it was a living memory of the past. By felling it, have we destroyed a cultural capital which could have benefited the area?
There is also the question of the plant material of this remarkable specimen. It might have been useful to collect for instance some graft wood to use it for breeding purposes and to produce highly vigorous pear trees well adapted to the Cantal region.
We could also have observed the behaviour of this centennial tree which survived the cold 1956 winter and the dry 1976 summer. Including such a tree in a research programme aimed at understanding the effects of climate change on fruit trees might have informed us on adaptation to global warming and provided directions for the future of fruit production.
Finally, as Evelyne Leterme points it out, the pear tree hosted a multitude of insects, animals and microorganisms during its life, which contributed to the biodiversity of the place and the success of the tree. Human beings too, generation after generation, enabled it to flourish. This virtuous ecosystem has lost one of its most enduring partner. To what gain? We will address these questions in another article, drawing from this concrete example of a 150 year old pear to reflect further on the value of fruit heritage.
Notes : (accessed 30 June 2020)
- https://www.lesfruitsetlegumesfrais.com/fruits-legumes/fruits-a-noyaux/cerise/les-varietes (in French)
- https://www.jardinsdefrance.org/andre-leroy-1801-1875-savant-botaniste-et-habile-manufacturier/ (in French)
- https://www.lerouergue.com/auteurs/leterme-evelyne (in French)
- https://www.lerouergue.com/auteurs/lespinasse-jean-marie (in French)
- https://occitanie.chambre-agriculture.fr/fileadmin/user_upload/Occitanie/076_Inst-Occitanie/Documents/Productions_techniques/Agriculture_biologique/Espace_ressource_bio/ITK-VergerHauteTige-2000.pdf (in French)
Bibliographic references :
Abbé Coumoul (1886), Le Jardin d’Auvergne, Boubounelle
Blanc, R. (2019), The lost orchard, Headline Home
Kessler, H. (1949), Pomologie illustrée, Fruit-Union Suisse Zoug
Leroy, A. (1867), Dictionnaire de Pomologie, Imprimerie P. Lachèse, Belleuvre et Dolbeau https://ia802307.us.archive.org/33/items/dictionnairedepo01lero/dictionnairedepo01lero.pdf
Leterme, E. (2014), La biodiversité amie du verger, Rouergue
Leterme, E. & Lespinasse, J.M. (2008), Les Fruits retrouvés, patrimoine de demain, Rouergue
Mas, A. (1875), Le Verger, tome 1. Poires d’hiver, Masson
Société Pomologique de France (1947), Le Verger français, tome 1. Catalogue descriptif des fruits adoptés, Arnaud