Harry & David: the People Behind the PearsThursday, October 13, 2011
Ciao Ragazzi! I am back from an incredible stint in Italy, Greece, and France and have not even cracked the tip of the iceberg on all the stories, amazing food, and gazillion photos I’d like to share with you all. So…please bear with me, I promise I’ll be rolling these out as soon as humanly possible!
As you can imagine, I’m slowly but surely reacquainting myself to reality. To help move things along, my first week back, I was whisked off to the beautiful Rogue Valley in southern Oregon by the lovely folks at Harry & David to join a fabu group of fellow bloggers in a mission to learn all about the famous Harry & David trademarked Royal Riviera Pear and meet the people behind the pears (not to mention the Moose Munch, chocolate treats, baked goodies, and perfect hand-tied, 7-loop bows.
“It’s like growing candy.” – Matt Borman, horticulturist
Harry & David is probably best known for their mouth-watering Royal Riviera Pears. Indeed, as soon as our little puddle-jumper of a plane touched down, I pretty much began to crave their pears immediately. These are no run of the mill pears. The Royal Riviera is an heirloom Comice pear that originated in Anjou, a region in the lower Loire Valley of western France. It’s a winter pear variety that is not widely grown, making up less than 8% of the pears you find on the market.
More importantly, the Royal Riviera has an amazingly sweet, juicy, intense pear flavor, and a texture that is downright silky. It has a pleasingly plump shape and often sports a beautiful blush tint. This is one voluptuous, sexy pear, people, and it is the cornerstone of Harry & David’s gifting business, dating all the way back to 1914 when brothers Harry & David Holmes hand-delivered these beauties all the way from Oregon to New York City.
(Sidebar: most interesting was the “mating disruption” technique used to deal with pesky worms that enjoy burrowing inside the fruit’s center. Farmers figured out that if the worm’s mom and dad never got it on, no larvae would be born. End result: pheromone-inhibiting aerosol sprays, lots of blue balled moths flying around, no worms.)
As Keeper of the Pears, Matt watches over the fruit, protects them from damaging frosts, wages war against intruders (from herds of antelope to dreaded lygus bugs to frisky moths), and basically offers them his soul.
While we frolicked in the orchards, we learned that the Royal Riviera has flourished in this region of the Rogue Valley due to the specific weather conditions found here. Comice pears loves heat during the day and chill during the night, and with a 30 degree swing in the summer here, this is one of the best areas in world to grow them.
Once nature (and Matt’s green thumb) has done its job, the complex process of getting the pears to your doorstep begins. The pears are hand-picked in dry weather, sorted, hand-packed, and then held in cold storage at 30 degrees in a low oxygen environment. This allows the pears to last up to an incredible 5 months.
“There are some days I wanna eat a whole head of lettuce.”
– Charlie Douglass, resident Candy Man
After we were done traipsing through the orchards, we visited the Harry & David bakery and candy kitchen, which was emitting scents so heavenly it should’ve been illegal.
I liked Charlie right away, maybe it was the twinkle in his eye or maybe it was the aura of butter and sugar about him. After I learned that he had lived in a teepee for 2 years prior to starting his 35-year-and-counting stint at Harry & David…well, after that, I was positively in love.
Charlie showed us around. We saw fresh batches of Moose Munch – an addictive blend of caramel, popcorn, cashews, and almonds – getting churned. Over 70 varieties of Moose Munch have been developed. (Charlie’s personal favorite is Root Beer Moose Munch.) We pressed our noses up against the window as chocolate covered pretzels were being made. (Guittard is the chocolate of choice here and they go through 4 to 5 million pounds of it per year.) We heard the rattle of pounds upon pounds of chocolate covered cherries being polished to a shine – a recipe that took over 100 trials before they nailed it. And, we gawked over the racks up racks of cheesecakes, fruit cake confections, baklava, and the longest cinnamon roll I’ve ever seen.
We even got to play in Charlie’s R&D kitchen and tried our hand at making one of this season’s new products, Hand-Dipped Chocolate Pears.
THE ART OF GIFTING
“It’s like the Keebler Tree meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets the North Pole here.” – Tim Urban, Chief Culinary Officer
A lot of people at Harry & David spend time thinking about “delivering happiness,” from ensuring the high quality of the ingredients inside the package to creating the prettiest presentation possible.
We headed down to Basket-Making Central where we got a peek into the intricacies of hand-packing a Harry & David gift basket. Karen Ayles, an employee of 25 years, showed me how it’s done, and made it look much easier than it was. Each item has a designated position in the basket, the pears must be protected at all times, and the “sizzle” (the decorative straw stuff) must be fluffed and rolled just so. Back in the day when Karen first started, she even had to weave the baskets by hand!
It took me about 15 minutes of hemming and hawing over my basket to complete it. It takes Karen about 1.5 minutes. It’s a good thing most of the folks on the line are closer to Karen’s time. In the month of December alone, 4.5 million packages are prepared and shipped within a 10 day window.
Basket-Making Central dovetailed nicely with Bow-Tying 101, taught by veteran Margaret Moser. Yes, amazingly enough, every single bow that adorns a Harry & David gift is hand-tied. We mastered the elementary 2-loop bow easy enough, but when it came to the 7-loop bow things quickly deteriorated. After witnessing Margaret’s super human bow-tying abilities, I’m convinced she has an extra finger or two tucked away in there.
THE HOLIDAY PREVIEW
We got a sneak preview of all the goodies to come for this holiday season. Favorites? A ridiculously adorable Snowman Tower, a prefabricated Gingerbread House (which is, let’s face it, better looking than you’d ever make), the Rogue Valley Gift Box containing Royal Riviera Pears and a selection of cheeses from one of my favorite cheese makers, Rogue Creamery, the Harvest to Holidays Gift Basket which includes a copy of Martha Stewart’s new Pies & Tarts cookbook, and of course, the 12-Month Signature Tower Fruit-of-the-Month Club which starts off with the decadent Holiday Tower of Treats in December and then moves into diet-friendly Honeybells (a tangerine/grapefruit hybrid) come January.
ROXYANN WINERY & COMMUNITY
After a long day of pear-gawking, taste-testing, basket-making, and bow-tying, we were treated to a special dinner at the beautiful RoxyAnn Winery, located in the historic Hillcrest Orchard in east Medford. One of Southern Oregon’s oldest orchards, Hillcrest Orchard has been directed by members of the Parsons family since 1908. Originally farmed for apples and pears, the orchard still produces Bartlett, Red Bartlett, D â€˜Anjou, Bosc, and Comice pears.
In 2000, Jack Day, grandson of the orchard’s founder, Reginald Parsons, saw the potential of grape growing on the property’s shallow limestone clay soils and began planting what would become 70 acres of primarily Bordeaux and Rhone style grapes at the base of Roxy Ann Peak.
Highlights of the meal:
- Sweet and creamy Northwestern Corn Chowder with Nasturtium Butter
- Dill-flecked Green Beans with Toasted Walnuts
- Chunky Pear-Cranberry Crisp with Nutmeg Whipped Cream
- 2009 RoxyAnn Founder Reserve Port – luxurious and complex, not too sweet, and a perfect pairing with our dessert cheese and pear plate
As our adventures in pear-land came to a close, the one thing that kept echoing in my mind was the overwhelming sense of community I felt. There is strong Southern Oregon pride here in Medford. Local businesses work together, neighbors know one another, and people take pride in showcasing what they’ve grown and made with their own hands.
At Harry & David, over and over, I was impressed with how high-touch the operations were. Of course, there is state of the art machinery at work, but there are also real people picking the pears, baking the cakes, rolling the cinnamon rolls, packing the gift baskets, and tying the bows.
In an age where staying at the same job for longer than a few years is rare, at Harry & David, it is not uncommon to meet not only lifers, but lifers whose parents, grandparents, husband, wife, or mother-in-law, also worked there. Truth be told, it is also rare these days to find so many happy employees…something that seems to abound here. These are the people carrying on a tradition of home-grown and hand-made. These are the people behind the pears.
Read more about our Harry & David excursion from my new friends:
Dana Wootton, Dana Treat
Delilah Dawson, Cool Mom Picks
Irvin Lin, Eat The Love
Kevin Max, 1859 Oregon’s Magazine
Melissa Lierman, Timeout Mom
Nicole Westin, Baking Bites
Peabody Rudd, Culinary Concoctions By Peabody
Sandy Cloughlin, Reluctant Entertainer
Sara Tetreault, Go Gingham
Serena Thompson, The Farm Chicks
Disclosure: Trip was sponsored by Harry & David.