Such a thing of beauty this: pickled pears. Of all the things I made at Christmas this was the one I loved the most. Sharp and simple, slightly searing, cold and slippery, the syrup thickened to a dark, gloopy sweetness. Christmas, what a slippery thing it is. Odd that the things I made with greatest pleasure when the flat was warm and still, weeks to go before the intensity of it all, were the things that were left and forgotten about on the day. In fact, the last jar of pickled pears I put in my brother’s car just before they left for Cornwall, and there it sat next to the mountain of cases and bags the day after Boxing day. It looked pathetic, so small and incongruous, and also promising because I think they will be eaten and savoured in a way that’s impossible when you are spooning things on to people’s plates in a manic, hot-faced way, pointing things out, trying to get people to eat massive amounts of food and unwrap presents and play games all within an eight hour window. The cheese grew dry, the quince paste overlooked. I think I forked a pear out of the jar in desperation, and stood over the person as they ate it. It went down well, but it was hardly a joy.
So I remember the making of the pickled pears with friendliness and calm; it was about a month before Christmas and I was leafing through Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, wanting to find some way of not losing the small, depressed-looking pears in my bowl. I landed on her pickled pears recipe. Like me, she finds chutney ‘unsympathetic’, and so to spiced fruit, which requires a vinegar syrup to which you add what you like – bay leaves, blades of mace, allspice berries, some mustard seeds in my case. And then the fruit: pears here, but you could use plums, peaches, melon, what you like.
We tried them out when my cousin Lucas came round, and they were eaten scooped on to Stilton and with some goat’s brie, a crater-like round of white cheese which tasted cool like yoghurt and didn’t survive the weeks to Christmas, the smell so rotten and cloying, the colour now a defeated yellow, we were forced to bin it. We tried the quince paste which was nice but still too sweet and unmellow, and Lucas told me to make jelly with the quince debris, which I did that night, spending hours watching it drip soundlessly from its muslin pouch, afraid to move it and then cloud it over. The pears and cheese were followed by a cup of tea and a round of Bananagrams and us all pretending that that had been Christmas. Or could have been Christmas, the kind that takes you unawares.
I remember our conversation in a way that I don’t of Christmas day, which comes to me largely in images: creaming green beans out of a pot with my bare hands for someone’s plate and looking down at waves of mud that had inexplicably appeared beneath my feet. The park early in the day, the quick furtive walk we did. Red cabbage that had somehow pulverized, standing in the kitchen eating blocks of stuffing, the Christmas pudding ready two hours after everyone had gone and its shining dome so perfect, the smell of concentrated fruit and alcohol, figs, raisins, just sumptuous and totally pointless. We ate it watching Paddington.
What I have left now is the juice. I have half a jar of it, the pears long gone. Because it has sat unnoticed for this time, it is intense, dark, tea-like. It is gloriously spiced. Now I am using it to add to pulped garlic and honey, because of my rattling chest and snotty nose. There is nothing like a spiced vinegar syrup on January days, when the days are long and calm again. I don’t even think there are pears now, certainly none on the trees which are all black and knotted round here, like long witches’ hands. So make it for the syrup alone. I would. There’s a while before you have to share it. Happy New Year.
Adapted from Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book
To vinegar: this recipe calls for white wine vinegar, but you could also make it with cider vinegar, which is about halfway between wine and malt vinegar, and not quite as shrieking in intensity. You could use red wine vinegar if you prefer the drama of it. I left my spices in the syrup, as you can see above. They continue to give up their flavour though so cloves might be best left out if you are using them. Other possibilities are a small piece of ginger, bruised, the thinly pared rind of a lemon, a red dried chilli.
6 large firm pears
350 – 450g light muscovado sugar (or to taste)
250 ml white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon of whole allspice
5 blades of mace or small chunk of nutmeg (or both)
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon of mustard seeds
Peel, core and cut pears into 8 slices each (or thereabouts). Cover with water – about 750 ml. Boil hard for five minutes. Strain off and measure the liquid. To 600 ml of the water add the sugar, vinegar and spices. Pour over the pears and simmer until the pieces are cooked and translucent – about 20 minutes depending on ripeness. Pour everything into a bowl and leave overnight. Drain off the liquid the next day into a pan and boil for five minutes to reduce it slightly and then pack the pears into warm-from-the-oven, sterilized jars along with the spices – unless you’re leaving them out. Pour over the boiling syrup and seal while still warm. Store for as long as possible before using; Jane Grigson says a month. I keep mine in the fridge. Lovely with cheese, ham, duck, or ‘a discreet vegetable or two’.