A Monarch and a Pear Tree
by Mark R. Vogel

            The twelve days of Christmas are a traditional festive period beginning on Christmas Day and ending on the Epiphany on January 6th.  The time-honored custom of celebrating the entire twelve day span has been all but lost in modern times.  According to the popular Christmas carol, on the first day of Christmas the beloved was presented with a partridge in a pear tree.  Sure beats a sweater.  Ineluctably the words of the song were never meant literally but embody symbolism.  One interpretation of the partridge and pear tree for example, is that it is a simulacrum for Christ and the cross.   

            Turning our attention to a more secular sovereign, King Henry III of England, (1207-1272) was an aficionado of pears.  England was importing them from France during his reign but Henry, and his wife Eleanor of Provence, took it a step further by abetting their propagation.  They planted many pear trees in their extensive gardens.  Interestingly, and ironically, Henry failed to reestablish English control over a number of regions of France, one being Anjou, (now called Maine-et-Loire), the namesake of a very popular variety of pear.

            Pears originated in Asia where they grew wildly in prehistoric times.  They have been cultivated in China for approximately 3,000 years.  They were known to the Greeks but were more popular with the Romans who also played a role in their proliferation.  The actual word pear first came into English usage in the 16th century.  Today there are over 5,000 species of pears, thanks to selective cultivation.  France, South Africa, Australia, Argentina and America are all significant pear producers.  In the US, the major pear states are California, Oregon and Washington. 

            Depending on the variety, pear season begins in July and extends through January.  Thus they are a classic fall and winter favorite.  Pears improve in flavor and texture after they are picked.  Choose specimens that are free of any undue blemishes or notable soft spots and/or bruises.  Allow them to ripen at room temperature and then refrigerate them if you are not promptly consuming them.  Pears contain dietary fiber, vitamin A, phosphorous, potassium and small amounts of vitamin C. 

Pears, like many fruits, can be consumed raw or cooked.  They are an ideal choice for poaching, particularly in red wine with cinnamon, cloves, and other fall spices.  They are also a good choice for a compote, a preparation of fresh or dried diced fruit, cooked in sugar, syrup and spices.  The compote is then used as a garnish, sauce, topping, etc., on both savory and sweet dishes.   Pears can be paired, (sorry I couldn’t resist), with savory dishes such as roast duck or pork loin.  But it is undeniably the dessert realm where they shine.  Tarts, sorbets, ice creams, mousses, and charlottes (a molded dessert made with sponge cake or ladyfingers, and filled with fruit and custard), are all good avenues for pears.

Use slightly firmer pears when cooking them to prevent them from becoming mushy.  After peeling and cutting pears, if they are not being immediately added to the dish, or if you have a number to peel and cut, sprinkle them with acidulated water or lemon juice to prevent them from browning. 

Bartlett pears are the most common in the US.  They can be red or green.  They are sweet and juicy and good either cooked or raw.  Likewise for Anjou pears except their external color is usually redder.  Bosc pears are brownish in color, have a slightly grainier texture and are a little less sweet.  They are a good choice for baking and poaching since they hold their shape better.  Asian pears range in size and color, from brown to yellow-green. They’re a little crunchy and amazingly juicy.  Seckel pears are reddish brown, have a spicier flavor, and are not as popular for eating fresh.  Their firmness renders them better candidates for cooking and canning.  Comice pears are larger, rounder pears, yellow-green to yell-red, very sweet, and best eaten fresh.

           

PEAR & GORGONZOLA CROSTINI

 

12 slices of bread from a French baguette (or other long narrow loaf)

Olive oil, as needed

1 pear, peeled, cored and chopped

Lemon juice, as needed

1 cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese

2 tablespoons heavy cream

¼ cup chopped walnuts

4 slices of bacon, cooked well done and crumbled

 

            Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Slice the bread into 12 crostini and drizzle with olive oil.   Bake until golden brown.  Chop the pears and immediately stir them with the lemon juice in a bowl to prevent them from browning.  Mix in the remaining ingredients.  Spoon the mixture over the crostini and serve.

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