There was a pear tree outside the window in Watchet. Conference pears that suited the palette of the place. Seaford was grey – pewter grey, oyster grey, pinky grey after the sunset. And Watchet was the full spectrum of brown. Deep russet, rust, coral red, the sand on the beach brown like earth, the red earth in the fields slack with rain, giving us all ‘ginger boots’ (dad’s phrase). High iron deposits in the soil, that’s what.
And even though there were tons of apples – in fact so many no one knew what to do with them all – pears were what we ate. And I love pears. I’d rather eat a pear than an apple. No peeling required. The juice is more forthcoming in a pear, the softness a surprise.
I was allowed to pick the pears, as many as I wanted. A lot had fallen on the ground, and were in the process of rotting back into the earth. It was the perfect time for them, almost to the day – ‘the tradition is to pick them on or soon after 1 November and then watch them as they come to perfection’ according to R.H.L Gunyon – and it was lovely to see how many sizes they came in, unlike the Stepford Wives versions I’m so used to seeing at the supermarket.
They were all hard, but this is normal. They should be picked firm and allowed to ripen at home. A ripe pear yields slightly around the stem, but doesn’t split or feel squashy. I ate pears two ways during my stay in West Somerset. The ones I picked I didn’t eat until five days later. I was unconvinced they would work out, but I kept them in my bag, ready.
The first pears I encountered were cooked; they were buttered, sugared, salted, spiced with ginger and cardamom, and phenomenally rich. It was hard to talk about them during or even after eating. My cousin Becky cooked them, following Lucas, her brother’s recipe. Made in the Aga, with crates of apples out the back. I remembered how Lucas used to read cookery books as a child in this house, and now here we were eating his gingery pears, reading them as we were eating them, his limpid prose coming from the shiny page. There are ten minutes in the life of a perfect pear, he wrote. Best get on then, as they say down this way.
On my last day, I picked more pears from the tree, and put them in my bag. None of them felt ready to eat. Even the ones from my first day felt disappointingly robust. Dad drove me to the train station. Another cancelled train. What is it with me and trains? The cancellation this time was due to the existence of ‘disruptive passengers’. We got back in the car. It was two hours until the next one and we were both hungry. It was pouring with rain and now it was cold; proper weather at last.
We ate smoked mackerel and pears while listening to a radio programme about drug overdoses. The pears were perfect. The mackerel was greasy – the savoury to the pear’s sweet. We wiped our hands on an old towel. And because we had two hours, we talked about our memories of things past.
Strange what being in a stationary car will do. I almost missed the next train. The conversation felt too short and suddenly I was out in the driving rain, just in time for the 7.05, the hems of my trousers slopping about in muddy pools. No more pears now, but I’m glad for both lovely meals. Pears cooked, pears raw. Short-lived and perfect.
Caramel pears with ginger and cardamom
Pears in cooking often need a little something – another fruit or spice. Lemon juice is good, because it also helps to arrest the pear’s discolouration after peeling. Pears and apples, pears and quinces, pears and greengages, pears and cheese, pears and bay etc. Here Lucas uses cardamom and ginger to spectacular effect – a pudding that tastes of the coming winter. Don’t be shy of the salt.
50g unsalted butter
75g dark brown sugar
75g granulated sugar
¼ tsp sea salt flakes
1½ tsp ground ginger
12 green cardamom pods
4 medium pears, peeled and halved
Preheat the oven to 200C/392F. Put the butter in a saucepan with both kinds of sugar, the sea salt and ground ginger. Using a sharp knife, slit open the cardamom pods and shake out the dark seeds from inside. Chop them with a knife (or grind them lightly in a pestle and mortar) and add to the butter and sugar. Warm over a gentle heat until the butter and sugar have melted together.
Pour into the bottom of a roasting tin or ovenproof frying pan that’s just large enough to fit the pear halves in a single layer. Arrange the pears on top of the sauce, cut side down. Place in the oven for 20 minutes, then carefully turn the pears over, basting with some of the hot sauce, and return to the oven for 20 minutes more. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 5 minutes. Serve with some of the sugary juices spooned over the top and a glug of double cream.
Cry loud the pears of anguish
Parisian street sellers, 13th century