I wonder why it is that pears are often the last fruit left in the bowl? Is it their appearance or that it's hard to tell from the outside if they are actually ripe?
Under-ripe, they are hard and dry, over-ripe they become a floury, mealy mush. But if you catch that fleeting moment of a perfectly ripe pear, in all its buttery, juicy, perfumed glory, you will understand why it is that some people are mad for pears.
Early gardeners often used perfumes in their cultivation, thinking this would influence the flavour of the fruit (a practice likely based on the observation that the milk and flesh of animals often takes on flavours from the herbs on which they graze). Seeds were steeped in perfume and seedlings were doused with perfumed water, but such practices were never needed for pears, whose fragrance has been appreciated through the ages. More highly prized than apples, they were considered "gold to the apple's silver".
Like apples, pears do not grow true from seed, and every pip produces a fruit that is different, which explains why wilding pears can be very gritty or even odiferously perfumed. Pyrus communis, the European pear (the Asian nashi pear is a different species, called Pyrus pyrifolia), is native across continental Europe through to northwest Iran. Accounts of massed plantings of pears in Ancient Persia date back to 500BC, as does grafting, from which we get the continuum of preferred varieties.
Pears can be divided into two categories, described in early times as either melting or breaking. The breaking varieties stay hard even when ripe and are usually best for cooking, while the melting types become highly aromatic and soften to a buttery texture when ripe.
Pears need to be picked from the tree before they are ripe - if left to ripen on the tree they develop a coarse, mealy texture and often break down around the core. If the fruit is ripe it will detach from the branch. Once picked, pears should be chilled to ripen properly. Bartlett pears need to be cooled only for a day or two, whereas winter pears such as Anjou, Bosc and Comice require two to six weeks.
The pears we buy in the shops have already undergone this process, so all they need is to sit in the fruit bowl. Stored in the fridge, pears keep for weeks, or in the case of the firmer winter varieties can hold right though to September provided there is no damage.
To ripen a pear, bring it back to room temperature and leave for a few days (up to about a week if it comes direct from the chiller). Don't wait for them to go soft - press gently at the stem end and if there is a slight yield they will be ripe. Fragrance is also a good indicator, especially for the soft, buttery types.
Pear and Fennel Salad
1 cup walnut pieces
2 just-ripe pears, sliced
1 fennel bulb (about 200g), trimmed and sliced
2 handfuls watercress or spinach leaves
2 Tbsp chopped parsley leaves
½ cup vinaigrette dressing
Preheat oven to 180C fanbake. Place walnuts on a shallow oven tray and roast until fragrant (about 10 minutes). Set aside to cool. While the walnuts are roasting, half-fill a bowl with cold water and add some ice cubes. Place pear slices, fennel slices and watercress or spinach leaves in the cold water and set aside for at least 15 minutes to crisp. Thoroughly drain the pear, fennel and watercress or spinach and put through a salad spinner or pat dry. Toss with parsley, roasted walnuts and vinaigrette, divide between plates and serve.
Annabel says: Pears work wonderfully in savoury salads. Some types brown quickly, so pop the slices into a bowl of water with a little lemon juice, then drain and toss through the salad.
Pear and Chocolate Sponge Puddings
Makes 6 puddings
½ cup sugar, plus 2 Tbsp extra
1 cup water
3 ripe pears, peeled, halved and cored or 6 canned pear halves
60g dark chocolate (at least 70 per cent cocoa solids), chopped
2 Tbsp flour
1 tsp each baking powder, mixed spice and ground ginger
Vanilla icecream, to serve
If using fresh pears, heat ½ cup sugar and water in a pot that will fit 6 pear halves in a single layer. Add pears, cover and simmer, turning now and then, until tender (about 20 minutes). Dice poached or canned pears, reserving the poaching or canning syrup. Preheat oven to 190C fanbake. Divide pears and chocolate between six 1-cup capacity ramekins and spoon 2 Tbsp poaching or canning syrup into each.Beat eggs and remaining 2 tbsp sugar until thick, pale and creamy. Fold in flour, baking powder and spices. Divide between ramekins and bake until set and golden (about 12 minutes). Serve with icecream.
Annabel says: Cooked pears topped with a simple chocolate sponge make an easy dessert. For a gluten-free version use the same amount of rice flour instead of regular flour.
Mulled Wine Pears
1 bottle red wine (it doesn't need to be expensive)
¾ cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp each whole cloves and vanilla extract
Zest of ½ orange, cut with a vegetable peeler (no pith)
6 firm pears, peeled but with stems left intact
Water, to cover
Vanilla icecream or soft whipped cream, to serve
In a pot that will fit the pears snugly upright in a single layer, heat together wine, sugar, cinnamon sticks, cloves, vanilla extract and orange zest. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Arrange pears upright in the syrup and add enough water so they are fully covered. Cover pot with a round of baking paper then place a small plate on top as a weight so the pears stay submerged. Simmer until tender (about 1 hour). Leave to cool, then remove pears from syrup and set aside. Simmer syrup over a high heat to reduce it by half. Serve pears with a drizzle of syrup accompanied by vanilla icecream or soft whipped cream.
Annabel says: I like to use Bosc pears for these - their tapered shape looks so elegant on the plate. If they don't stand up, just slice a little off the bottom.