If you're not a botanist or gardener, the word pome may seem unfamiliar. This category contains everyday fruit like apples and pears as well as some more unusual species. Pomes are fleshy fruits without a central stone; instead, a number of seeds sit in a separate chamber at the center of the fruit. Pomes are members of the Rosaceae or rose family, but not all fruit from this family are pomes: Fruit such as the apricot, peach and cherry are drupes or stony fruit. Pomes may grow on either deciduous or evergreen fruit trees.
The most famous pome fruit, the apple is hugely versatile, playing a major role not only in cooking but in human culture. More than 7,000 varieties of apple are grown worldwide. Apples were important to cultures all across Europe and the Middle East. They appear in myths including:
- The Greek myth of the golden apples of the Hesperides; stealing this immortality-granting fruit was one of the labors of Hercules.
- Another Greek myth, the story of the judgment of Paris, in which a golden apple causes war amongst the gods and, eventually, humans.
- Norse mythology, in which the goddess Idunn granted immortality with the aid of apples.
- The Biblical story of Adam and Eve.
Apples are delicious baked, but the most common way to eat them is simply raw, either whole or sliced. Apples also form the basis for drinks like cider and Calvados. In the U.S., "cider" can mean fresh-pressed juice, but elsewhere it refers to an alcoholic drink. Early recipes for apple pie date to the 14th century.
Sweet and juicy, pears have softer flesh than apples. Like apples, there are thousands of varieties of pear. Many have a characteristic form with a bulbous lower half and a thinner upper half -- indeed, this is known as "pear-shaped." However, not all pears are pear-shaped; the Nashi or Asian pear has a more apple-like shape. The flesh of a pear contains sclereids or "stone cells," microscopic cells that give the fruit its slightly gritty texture.
Like apples, pears can be cooked, eaten raw, juiced or made into an alcoholic beverage; cider made from pears is called perry.
Quinces resemble pears but with a bumpy, bright-yellow skin. Although they give off an enticing aroma, quinces are bitter if eaten raw. Cooked quince flesh turns from yellow to pink; it also contains a high level of the gelling agent pectin, which makes it ideal for jams and jellies. In Spain, a firm quince paste called membrillo is a traditional accompaniment for cheese.
Looking a little like a very large rose hip -- to which it is distantly related -- the medlar has flesh that is unpleasantly tart when first picked. After storage and bletting -- a process in which the firm flesh breaks down into a sticky mush -- the taste mellows and the fruit can be used to make jelly, wine and even a paste known as "cheese." This paste was used in the Victorian era to make tiny decorative cakes in the shape of animals or seasonal ornaments.
Also known as Japanese medlars, loquats are native to the cool, hilly areas of southeast China. The small, soft, tangy fruit can be peeled and eaten fresh, stewed with sugar or used to make jam; they are high in pectin, which makes them well-suited for jellies. Loquats grow in parts of the United States, but commercial loquat orchards are very rare in comparison to the popularity of the fruit in Asia.