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Food and drink

The gnarly pear adventure Where bear-assisted taste trumps Photoshop perfection

“Gnarly!” declares Marcel Richoz, holding up one of the plump and bumpy golden pears at the Old Airport Garden stand at Whistler Farmer’s Market.

“Look, it’s a face.” And it is — an old man’s face with a scar and puckered, collapsing cheeks like he’s just taken his dentures out, and a stem for a long wicked nose.

“These are sooo good,” he advises. And so I stock up on another bag of them. At 25 cents each they seem a bargain. (When I got to my car, I tried one. It was so fabulous I ran back for more.)

If you want to find a Whistler local on a Sunday morning, there’s a good chance he or she will be at Leslie Malm’s Old Airport Garden stand, stocking up on fruits and veggies fresh from Lillooet.

My friend, Pauline Wiebe, actually sent me for the Italian prune plums and the tomatoes, and Marcel was there for those, too, snacking on a blue-purple plum as he filled the little container. (“Fill it more,” urges Hannah Steiner, who was supervising temporarily to give Leslie a break. When was the last time you heard a vendor urging you to take more for your money?)

By the time I was done, I was laden with bags of precious little golden pear and cherry heritage tomatoes I’d also sampled, heavy fragrant beefsteaks, hot chartreuse Australian lantern peppers, sweet little red pepper bombs, a melon, and, of course, the pears and plums — so dense and rich with flavour. Heavenly bounty all, but it’s the pears that have left a lasting impression.

If it hadn’t been for Marcel’s endorsement, I may not have tried them. They were perfectly coloured, and heavy for their size, which meant lots of juice, but nestled in their box, many of them puckered and gnarly like that old man’s face, and a bit on the smallish side, I have to confess they looked like strange dwarfs. I had been hesitating…

So where did these potent magical pears come from?

A wild, rogue D’Anjou pear tree. One that likely was started by a bear.

“I’d like to claim it came from the farm here — we have amazing pears in general on the farm — but this is from an organic source, which is a tree outside my own yard,” says Leslie, later on the phone from Lillooet.

“It can’t be any older than about 25 years because my family used to own the property that it’s on and they moved across the river to be closer to the garden in about 1980.

“I don’t remember ever seeing it planted, and because I have a great traffic of bears coming through that property, because of the plum, pear and apple trees, and the other things growing there, it probably grew out of bear droppings. That’s my guess.”

So there it sits, this mighty little pear tree, just doing its thing in the sun and rain and snow, pumping out fabulous little pears with a streak of wild goodness in them. And nary a human hand interferes with a dollop of fertilizer or a spray of insecticide.

Then there’s the other thing about these pears. Some have a bit of a brown scab or marking on them, which seems to be the cause of their gnarliness, pulling some of the skin tight until the fruit puckers.

Definitely makes for fruit that’s interesting, and full of character — fruit that upstages and, when you stop to think about it, renders weird and other-worldly the waxy, artificial perfection of most fresh produce we see. Something like those e-mails people are passing around these days of the Dove soap ad campaign for “real women” or of (female) models in magazine ads, how they really look in the shot, and how they look after the image has been manipulated in Photoshop.

So do things like the brown blemishes — which are simply the result of an overgrowth of something naturally present on the skin after too much moisture or an injury — put people off at Whistler?

“It’s a half-and-half market,” says Leslie. “Some people see a little odd bump or dimple, or a little stain, or a tiny little insect bite, and they’ll look at it like euuw, what’s this? But many people are willing to overlook that. You can cut around things like that, right?”

Right. That’s exactly what everyone used to do before produce became so perfect so often that now it seems like an aberration or the sub-norm to find a nick or spot.

“But most of my customers know what they are going to get from me. I’m not going to present them with a market-perfect product, but I will present them with something that tastes really, really good,” she says.

Leslie also notes that customers who are into organics, as many Whistler locals are, are much more tolerant of blemishes and imperfections.

Given that, I think we need a new category for food certification standards beyond organic — how about “natural” or “good as wild”? That would definitely fit Old Airport Garden produce. Most of it is not necessarily certified organic, but it generally comes from a source as close to organic as possible. Certainly something like that rogue pear tree, which basically has been allowed to do its own thing, is something beyond “organic”.

The other thing these Mighty Mouse pears take on are pears twice or three times their size. They pack a whallop and are just as, if not more satisfying than much larger fruit.

“This is the other thing in the modern market,” says Leslie. “Everything has to be gigantic. I find that I bring sizes that are even discarded by other stands. People pick it over not wanting a lot of little stuff.”

Leslie finds the smaller fruit is perfect for tourists, who want to go around and have a little taste of a lot of things. And that’s the thing about a pear that weighs two pounds or a peach so big you could feed a family of four with it. It is so huge that once you open it you’re stuck with eating a whole lot of it.

In the quest for “big” it’s as if we consumers have indirectly asked growers to “super-size” everything.

So thank you to that bear that ate a D’anjou pear from the Old Airport Garden orchard some 25 years ago and recycled it out the other end — and thanks to all those other bears that ate and recycled the Italian prune plums along their bear trail.

You’ve proven beyond a doubt what great farmers you are in consort with Mother Nature.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who eats Old Airport Garden pears and tomatoes over the kitchen sink.