The time is ripe to use the honeyed taste of the pear in savoury or sweet autumnal dishes, says Russell Brown
As far as volume is concerned, the pear is overshadowed by the apple – sales volumes of British apples outweigh those of the pear by about five to one.
In terms of varieties, they are also less prolific, but the numbers are significant The National Fruit Collection lists 530 pear and 2,000 apple varieties. Commercially, there are four pear and eight apple varieties that are regularly on sale, but this represents only a fraction of the types available, so it is well worth talking to local growers about the availability of less commercial varieties.
The history of the cultivated pear in the UK goes back to the Roman occupation and, over the years, the number of varieties has increased: by 1640 there were 64 varieties being cultivated, increasing to 622 in 1826. In 1858, Doyenne Du Comice was introduced, followed by Conference in 1894, which now accounts for 90% of British production. The Concorde, a cross between the Conference and the Comice, was introduced in 1994. Williams is the fourth variety often grown in the UK.
Annual production is 26,000 tonnes and the season runs from September to May for Conference, August to October for Williams and October to February for Comice and Concorde.
From a culinary perspective, the biggest difference in the varieties is in the texture; the flesh of a ripe pear can be anything from firm and grainy to soft, smooth and melting. The Comice is considered to have particularly luscious flesh and eats well with cheese.
The slightly firmer texture of the Conference lends itself to poaching and it has an elegant shape for serving whole. Nutritionally, pears are low in calories and high in fibre.
Pears certainly aren’t overshadowed by apples, as far as versatility is concerned, having many uses in both sweet and savoury dishes. Classics include Poire belle Hélène, pear Charlotte, and pear, walnut and Roquefort salad, but modern usage goes way beyond this. Pears are pickled, fermented, puréed, poached, roasted, dried and fried.
Chef Rich Collingwood, from the Cottage in the Wood near Keswick in the Lake District, serves poached Williams pear with gingerbread and meadowsweet. Phil Thomas, head chef at Rosewarne Manor in Hayle in Cornwall, is planning a pear and ginger chutney for his Christmas menus – perfect with blue cheeses – and James Whetlor from Cabrito Goat Meat bucks tradition, preferring pears for his version of the Dorset apple cake.
Roast partridge with pancetta-wrapped pears
For the pears
4 Conference or Concorde pears
Freshly ground black pepper
8 rashers thin-cut pancetta
For the partridge
4 partridge crowns
4 sprigs of thyme
2 cloves garlic, smashed
25g unsalted butter
For the chard
200g Swiss chard, leaves shredded, stalks cut into batons and blanched
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
25g crème fraîche
Maldon sea salt and freshly
ground black pepper
4 small fondant potatoes
100ml game jus
Trim the base from the pears so they will stand upright. Core them using a Parisienne scoop and then peel, leaving the stalks intact. Season well with black pepper.
Stretch the pancetta slices out using the back of a knife and wrap around the pears from stem to base, overlapping by at least a third. Secure with a cocktail stick. Drizzle with a little oil, cover the stem with foil and bake at 220ºC for 10-15 minutes until the pancetta is crisp and golden and the pear is tender.
Season the partridge crowns. Heat some olive oil in a heavy pan and seal on both breasts. Add a splash more oil and then the thyme, garlic and butter. Baste well and then add 100ml water to the pan. Transfer to a hot oven and roast for 4-6 minutes, basting frequently. Remove to rest.
Wilt the chard leaves in some hot olive oil. Add the garlic when the leaves are nearly tender and cook for a further minute without browning the garlic. Add the stalks and the crème fraîche and season to taste.
To serve, place one pear on each plate, mound some chard to one side and then carve the breasts from the partridge crowns. Lay the breasts on the chard and add the fondant potatoes to the side. Drizzle over a little game jus.
Saffron and perry-poached pears with honey cream and pistachio
Prepare 24 hours ahead to allow the pears to steep
For the pears
75g caster sugar
0.5g saffron threads
6 Conference pears
For the honey cream
1 vanilla pod, seeds only
50g strongly flavoured runny honey
1.5g leaf gelatine soaked in cold water
75g double cream plus 10g milk
For the praline
50g caster sugar
40g green pistachios
5g unsalted butter
In a pan that will hold the pears in one layer, heat the perry, sugar and saffron. Remove from the heat and infuse for 30 minutes. Trim the base from the pears so they will stand upright. Core using a Parisienne scoop and then peel, leaving the stalks intact. Add the pears and top up with water to cover. Place a cartouche over the pears and bring the liquid to a simmer. Cook until the pears are just tender. Allow to cool in the liquid and then refrigerate for 24 hours before use.
For the honey cream, beat the mascarpone with the vanilla seeds and honey. Warm the milk and add the squeezed-out gelatine to this, stirring to dissolve. Whisk the gelatine into the mascarpone. Combine the cream and milk then whip to very soft peaks, fold into the mascarpone mix and chill to set.
For the praline, heat the sugar in a small, heavy-based pan over a moderate heat until it is a light golden brown colour. Add the nuts and the butter. Tip out onto a Silpat mat, cover with silicone paper and press flat. Allow to cool before chopping into a rough crumb.
To serve, drain the pears and reduce the cooking liquid to a light syrup. Place a pear upright in a shallow bowl and add a quenelle of the honey cream, then sprinkle over the pistachio praline.