Annabel Langbein: The perfect pear (+ recipes)
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.
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. Get the recipe
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. Get the recipe
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. Get the recipe
Essential Annabel Langbein (Annabel Langbein Media, $65) is a beautiful compendium of Annabel’s best-ever savoury recipes and cooking tips — on sale at Paper Plus, Whitcoulls, The Warehouse and all good bookstores or visit annabel-langbein.com