A partridge in a pear tree
Pears are from the rosaceae family, close cousins to apples and quinces, and also related to almonds, a simpatico familial member. They’re an ancient fruit with references in Greek mythology, linked to Venus the Roman goddess of love, were one of the first fruits to be cultivated in Britain, and were grown in Australia upon the arrival of the First Fleet.
They are a diverse group, with many types of sub-species, but the main distinction is between the European and Asian pears. It’s thought that both developed along parallel time lines but in different parts of the world. European pears tend to have an elongated shape and are usually buttery, soft fleshed, sweet and subtle. Asian pears, including nashis, are often more rounded in shape, with a crunchy texture and a sweetness that’s balanced with a hint of tart acidity; they also have a different cell structure, which gives them their sometimes slightly sandy gritty texture.
Prickly pears, also a fruit, are unrelated, belonging instead to the cactus family.
As for that partridge, it’s unlikely to be found in any tree as it’s a ground-dwelling bird.
Beware the sleepy pear
While the pear tree itself is a fairly vigorous deciduous, with delicate white blossoms when it flowers, the actual fruit, once ripe, is a fragile beast, bruising easily, with only a brief moment in which it is at its peak.
Pears in Australia are mostly grown in Victoria and South Australia and, although the picking season can start as early as January, are at their best in autumn and winter.
Pears, interestingly, ripen from the inside out making them one of the few fruits that are actually better picked when still hard. They do need to mature on the tree, though, with most varieties ready when you lift the fruit sideways and the stem breaks, but if left to fully ripen on the branch, they start to brown from the core and become mealy in texture; pears such as these are referred to as ‘sleepy’.
Once off the tree, pears need a moment of chilling before ripening - without this the fruit can go from firm to decomposed without ever being properly ripe. Pears store well at this stage in cool dark spots and will only start to ripen once brought to room temperature.
Different varieties have divergent ripening times. The best way to test if a pear is ripe is to gently press the fruit just below its stem: a little give indicates its readiness. Not true for nashi pears, though - they are picked when ripe and will actually stay fresh quite happily in your fridge for several weeks.
(More than) two of a kind
Pears are still one of the few fruit that we can easily buy according to variety. The corella is a pear developed in the Barossa Valley from seed brought by Germen settlers. It’s a small to medium pear with golden to red streaked skin. Delicious firm and soft, it has an almost tropical flavour and is good for eating and cooking. The packham is another Australian variety and a very common world cultivator. A large and often bumpy pear, it is slow ripening and is available for most of the year. The versatile and popular Bartlett, also called a William or Duchess, is often the choice for production, such as canning and used to make the French Poire Williams, a delicious very boozy eau di vie (brandy), which is great as a digestive.
Beurre bosc, in my mind, are the most attractive, a russet brown colour with a picture-perfect elongation to them. They have a mellow honey and, like their name, buttery flavour. Nashi pears, of which there are many varieties, were brought to Australia by Chinese gold miners. Their season is short, from February to March, and, unlike other pears, I like to eat them fresh, crisp and cold from the fridge.
My pear pick, though? A crunchy beurre bosc, firm and tasting a little green, or a red blushed baby corella still slightly hard with dense juicy flesh.
Pears are a versatile fruit, sweet yet with many savoury applications. When they’re at their peak, eat as is, enjoying their juiciness with hints of rose sweetness. Left too long or the wrong type used in cooking, they can become mealy, bland, overly sweet and horribly wrong.
The tree produces a hard wood, useful for making things but also a perfect wood to use for smoking food. Also good is perry, a cider-style beverage. Made similarly to apple cider using wild pears that have more acid and tannin than their eating counterparts, the English variety tends to be a still drink while the French version is a delightful subtlety sweet yet dry sparkling beverage.
A classic combination is pear and chocolate - done badly and the fruit is overwhelmed, but sublime, if done right.
Pears are perfect for poaching; make a liquor with any number of boozes, saffron, sweet spices or a combination of all. I love the flavour of a poached pear served with warm vanilla custard or as a tart and there was a particularly delightful pear and grappa sorbet that I once made.
The Italians make pear mostardo, which pairs deliciously with crumbly aged Parmigiano-Reggiano although I like it with Taleggio too. In fact, most cheeses are happy with pears.
I love pears raw in a salad with watercress; served with nuts; and there’s also a very fine Korean dish involving raw beef and nashi, called yukhoe.
My best pear moment recently, though, was an excellent salad with charred cabbage, mustard and pear.
Cook Tama's pear recipes
This is a delightful warm winter salad, it has weight yet still retains a lovely freshness. Morsels of fried polenta and chunks of roasted nashi mingle together and are balanced with crunchy slivers of fennel and watercress.
This is a simple, gentle, warming winter soup with a subtle pear sweetness. The nutty salsa on top provides the contrast: a little tangy and slightly salty with a hint of bitterness and crunch from the walnut.
Fatty pork, sweet pear and spicy mustard all mingle together rather nicely in this dish. A perfect winter dinner that can be prepared in stages and easily finished when you are ready to eat.
This is a deliciously spiced, dense yet moist pear cake with a delightful aroma. It has several layers, many ingredients and a long cooking time but don’t be alarmed – each step is easy and can be prepared over several days.
Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Lee Blaylock. Food preparation by Tiffany Page.
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