Wednesday, November 03, 2010
Another wonderful autumn treat, pears come in a range of flavours and textures and can be enjoyed in many different ways (other than as a delicious snack on their own). Exceptional when poached with red wine and vanilla, they are also stunning with chocolate as in the classic French dessert Poires Belle Hélène (below). Alternatively try them in salads or add to an after-dinner cheese board; they go particularly well with Pecorino or Roquefort.
The cultivation of pears goes back some 4,000 years. It is likely that they originated in the Caucasus region from where they spread west to Europe and east to Asia.
In Ancient times the pear was considered superior to the apple and outnumbered it in varieties grown. By 300 B.C. techniques such as grafting and cross-pollination of pears were known in Greece.
The Domesday Book of 1086 refers to pear trees as boundary markers in England, suggesting their cultivation at this time. The first important English pear, the Wardon (a cooking pear mentioned in Shakespeare's work) was introduced by Cistercian monks at Wardon in Bedfordshire.
Pear varieties were greatly improved during the eighteenth century, largely by horticulturalists in France and Belgium. The number of varieties growing in Britain rose from 64 in 1640 to over 700 by the late nineteenth century.
Today the Conference pear accounts for well over 90% of commercial production in this country. Imported pears account for around 80% of consumption.
Like its cousin the apple, the pear (Pyrus communis in Europe) is a member of the rose family. Botanically speaking a pear is a type of pome - a false fruit in which five carpels (the true fruit) form a core containing the seeds.
Pears are a good source of vitamin B6 and vitamin C, potassium and copper. A slow-releasing energy fruit, excellent for helping to balance blood sugar levels.
Pears are usually picked when slightly under-ripe and they improve in texture and flavour after picking. Ripe pears have an inviting fragrance and yield to gentle pressure at the stem end but slightly firmer pears are usually preferable for use in cooking.
Choose pears that are undamaged and well-coloured. Russeting (a matt brown speckling on the surface) is normal on many pears.
Widely available UK/European varieties include:
Willams pears - golden yellow or red-tinged, juicy and sweet but with a firm texture, good for cooking.
With a long, thin shape and russet skin, Conference pears have very sweet and juicy flesh.
Comice is a French variety viewed by many to be the best pear. Tender, aromatic and richly-flavoured.
Concord - a recently developed Conference/Comice hybrid - is particularly good in dishes involving chocolate.
A pear's window of optimum ripeness is smaller than that of apples. Store at room temperature to accelerate ripening and refrigerate ripe pears or those you won't be using for a few days.
Prepare pears as you would apples, starting with a brisk scrubbing under running water. Rubbing cut surfaces with lemon helps prevent discolouration. The pips contain amygdalin - a compound that the body breaks down into hydrogen cyanide, although you'd probably need to eat your body weight in pears to receive a lethal dose.
Cooking times for pears vary depending on variety, ripeness and desired consistency. Test for doneness with a skewer. We find that if you start with firmish pears you can usually cook them for some time longer than recipe recommendations without detrimental effect.