Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Pears: The queen of fruit

With a pear cake perfect for Thanksgiving potluck

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I love Paris in the springtime... I love pairs of pears in the fall...

La, la, la, la, go ahead — sing along as you slice into a gorgeous Bartlett pear, ripe enough to be juicy and, if you like them like I do, unripe enough to sport a touch of green and weave some tang in under that sun-struck sweetness.

Or how about a beautiful red Bartlett, if you're looking for a nice fat pear with a striking visual difference?

Soon we'll be seeing the popular winter variety in our neck of the woods, d'Anjous, best known, at least visually, for their plumpety, bumpety bodies and distinctive chartreuse tones. Taste-wise, they're juicy, sweet-tart and fragrant with those distinctive esters that make pears pears. Pick them a bit green then stick them in a brown paper bag and soon they'll ripen to perfection.

During this fall interlude between d'Anjou prime time and the more summery Bartletts, we're also seeing the distinctive Bosc, an autumn pear harvested in September and October. Its smooth, lean form and metallic brown tones make it look like it's been turned on a lathe from a single piece of oak or bronze.

Superb just as they are, any or all of these pears are also oh, so suited to a nice chunk of cheese. My favourite pear pairing? A creamy, semi-soft one, like Port Salut or its cousin, Oka, from Quebec. The combination of flavours and textures is perfect, without any cues from the so-called dietetic origins of the tradition.

For in the late Middle Ages in France, writes Jean-Louis Flandirn in Food: a Culinary History, there were adages in oral culture around dietetics. Regarding foods that were hard to digest, one went that "cheese digests all things but itself." Pears were thought to have the same quality and so the two were often consumed together, to better digest one another as it were. The result was the adage that "Oncques Dieu ne fit tel mariage comme de poire et de fromage," or, "God made no better marriage than pear with cheese."

A chunk of bread, a chunk of cheese, a pair of pears, and thou... But again I lapse into poetry and song, with undertones of romance, marriage metaphor or not. It's no wonder, for the pear, with or without its cheesy partner, is rooted in Western European art and culture.

To start, I would gladly take a loonie for every pear painted into a still life, Flemish, Dutch or otherwise. Pears are popular subjects in Arabic and Asian visual arts as well, both for their attractive aesthetics and their availability, but it's especially fitting so many pears star in Western European prints, drawings and paintings.

Pears were cultivated by the Romans. Then it was 18th century Belgian and French horticulturalists who took the two subspecies of the Asian pear — which are likely native to western China but had also spread in the wild to Europe and north Africa — and bred them into the kinds of pears we Westerners are familiar with today.

So-called Asian pears, more round than pear-shaped, are distinctive for their juiciness and crisp flesh, which is "more or less gritty with cellulose-rich 'stone cells'" as Harold McGee describes them in On Food and Cooking.

Originally, all pears were hard-fleshed and gritty "sand pears" until the soft buttery texture characteristic of European pears was bred into them. In the meantime, Asian horticulturalists, especially in Japan, were also working away breeding better pears, these ones more juicy and flavourful varieties of the Asian pear.

Pears, like apples, are members of the rose family, one of the most food-productive families on the planet. Pears, however, especially our modern varieties, are much denser and juicier than apples, which may well have given rise to one of their older nicknames, "Queen of Fruit."

If you're unlucky enough to get a mushy pear that's more of a rough-and-ready peasant than a queen, it's because it was picked after it started to ripen, or it was left to ripen too long after it was in cold or controlled atmosphere storage. In either case, the core starts to break down as well.

The secret to ripening your pears to your idea of perfection is a brown paper bag and a dark, cool spot that's between 18 and 20 C. Depending on how ripe your pears are when you buy them, it may take several days. Whatever you do, don't store them in a plastic bag because pears are sensitive to carbon dioxide and the ethylene they produce as they ripen.

We're right in the middle of high season for pears, so get them while they last. Enjoy them raw with your favourite pear-pairing cheese, poached in wine or honey, or cooked up into a pear chutney.

If you get some good ones, this pear cake my friend, April, made is fabulous and super easy to make — perfect to bring as your Thanksgiving potluck offering. She's adjusted the recipe so it's friendly for lactose-intolerant cake lovers like me. I think it would be just as good with plums, another fall favourite at ease in so many simple, mouth-watering ways.

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