My first salad. Not the first salad I’ve ever eaten – that would be a bit perverse – but the first one I’ve written about here. The blue cheese is not essential; it is the pear and watercress that makes the dish, but a nice Stilton or Roquefort lends a lactic headiness to proceedings. This crosses the border between indulgence and virtue. Yes, it has a lot of fresh, raw greenery, but that mustn’t deter us. And it is a meal in itself. Have some hot crusty bread, a jug of dressing to mop up, and nothing else is required.
Pears are one of my favourite things. They are tricky, temperamental. The moment between just ripe – your thumb making the slightest depression in the skin, the juice ready to spill – and pear-rot is a hair’s breadth. They are peaceful to look at, a still-life, long and sloping, the Modigliani of fruit. I love Conference* pears the best – their mottled, taupe skin, slightly rough to the touch. They ooze and fall into your mouth, but never collapse. It’s good to eat them from the point down. In fact they fit in the palm perfectly.
This recipe – minus the blue cheese – came by way of my Australian aunt Cynthia and when we took it on, perhaps unconsciously, we would always serve it in an Aboriginal bowl made of wood. It was a strange shape, like an opened clam, and on the outside there were black inked carvings. You weren’t supposed to wash it, but we did, and it withstood this neglect and abuse for years. It still exists now as a receptacle for other things, looking terminally dusty. But we used it in London mainly, in Redcliffe Square, and I sometimes sat and ate this salad and watched Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley leave their flat from the house opposite. Sometimes, I would see them through the glass getting ready for things. I once inadvertently walked past his door when he was coming down the steps to be ‘caught’ by a paparazzo. Afterwards, he and the photographer stood around and chatted.
This was around the time when strange pairings were encouraged generally. It was as if we had woken from our Eighties torpor, ready to push the boat out. There was lamb and pears, for example. The macrobiotic diet was doing the rounds and there was talk of yin and yang. Things that were acidic needed to be mixed with things that were alkaline. Even the area was mixed: rent-controlled apartments such as ours existed alongside celebrities and landed gentry. Earls Court, although at that time largely Arabic, still had the residue of transplanted Aussies, like my mum, who had arrived in the late Fifties and stuck around.
Strangely, this recipe hasn’t dated, nor is it ubiquitous. It has survived the fashions and vagaries of the time. It reminds me of interesting couplings. Of rubbing along. I think it might be worth a revisit.
Pears, watercress and blue cheese
Adapted from Ruth Watson, The Really Helpful Cookbook
2 large handfuls of watercress
2 or 3 ripe-but-firm pears
100g Roquefort (or other blue cheese) – you can improvise with the amount
For the dressing
1-2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
4-5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbs honey
1 tbs Dijon mustard
Pinch of sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Make the dressing: dissolve the sea salt with the balsamic vinegar by giving it a good swirl, then add the mustard and stir throughly to combine. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil until it’s all mixed. Add the honey and stir. Put to one side.
Break up the watercress and remove the stems. Artfully arrange onto plates. Peel, core and cut the pears into sixths (or quarters if they’re quite small). Do this at the last moment to prevent the pears from browning, or slather in lemon juice and put to one side. Leave on some of the skin if you like a bit of texture. Tuck the pears into the watercress and season with some black pepper. Crumble some blue cheese over each plate. Drizzle with the dressing and some extra honey if you like. Serve immediately. Likes hot bread.
*Bosc pears are a good substitute in the US. In fact, they are plumper and juicier.