Why Pears?

I’ve always struggled to persuade people to plant pear trees. Everyone says the fruit can be perfect but more often it’s not; the pears are hard as nails then, when your back is turned, they’ve gone soft and get mangled by wasps. We inherited a couple of pear trees in our old house and I presented the (bullet like) fruit to Caroline to work a culinary miracle with. She did, and we’ve planted Bristol Cross, Catillac and Onward at our new place as I was so impressed. I thought I’d ask her to reveal her secrets…

If you’re lucky enough to buy or pick pears that are perfectly ripe nothing can beat eating them as they are, but if they’re rather on the hard side then all hope isn’t lost. In fact they’re just what you need for making jars of mulled pears, perfect for Christmas presents as well as for your own larder. They’re delicious with cold meats or you can use them to make a wonderful pear tarte tatin.

Mulled Pears: Makes 2 x 1 litre jars

Pre-heat oven to 150, heat the jars before filling

125g granulated sugar
500ml cider (I prefer using dry or medium – we use the local Bullbeggar cider made by friends in Lamyatt)
2 kg pears – not too ripe or they won’t keep their shape
Small handful of cloves
Cinnamon sticks
Star anise

Peel the pears whole with the stalk attached, place in a bowl of lightly salted water to stop them browning. When all are peeled cut them in half and stud each with a couple of cloves. Pack them tightly into warm, sterilised jars (I put my jars into the washing up machine and run a hot quick cycle just before using them). Add other spices – cinnamon stick, star anise, juniper berries.

Mix the sugar with 500ml of water and slowly bring to the boil to dissolve the sugar. Add the cider and bring to the boil. Pour over the pears. Cover the jars with lids but do not seal. Place the jars on a baking tray, not touching each other, and place in the oven for an hour. Remove carefully from the oven and seal the lids. Leave to settle and cool until the next day. They will then keep for up to a year.


Pear Tarte Tatin: serves 6 – 8
Pre-heat oven to 180

1 x 1ltr jar of mulled pears or approx 6 pears (not too ripe)
1 packet of puff pastry
100g of unsalted butter
125g caster sugar
12” frying pan with metal handle as it needs to go into the oven or tarte tatin tin

Melt the butter in the frying pan, add the sugar sprinkled evenly. Core your pears and quarter them lengthwise. Arrange the pears in the pan core side up, squashed together as tightly as possible as they shrink during cooking.

Continue cooking until the sugar and butter caramelise – you want to get it to the lovely brown caramel colour. I find it takes much longer than I think it will, but be careful as it changes from caramel to burnt remarkably quickly! Remove from the heat.

While the sugar is caramelising, roll out the puff pastry so that it is slightly larger than the pan. Place the pastry over the pears and tuck the edges down. Cook for approximately 20mins until the pastry is golden. Turn out onto a plate – this is easier than it sounds, be brave – place the plate on top of the pan and turn upside down. Make sure you hold tight and be careful as it is very hot. You can serve it straight away but I prefer to leave it and have it warm. If no-one’s looking add some really good vanilla ice cream.

My favourite recipes for preserving and bottling fruit are found in:
Jams, Preserves and Edible Gifts by Sara Paston-Williams
River Cottage Preserves, by Pam “the jam” Corbin
Gardener Cook, by Christopher Lloyd



A Little Outing

A quick trip to the Marches last week to visit a couple of folk and the Malvern Show. I’m not going to mention any of my normal Show gripes, but concentrate on the positive. The nice thing about the trip was the strong sense of what Common Ground would call “local distinctiveness”. It’s part of the world that hasn’t sold its soul.

I got off to a good start by visiting Jenny Steel in Shropshire to have a catch up over a coffee, and thence to Plant Wild, outside Leominster. Plant Wild is the brainchild of Keith Arrowsmith and Suzanne Noble, who are growing and harvesting native plants and seeds. Keith, like me, is a refugee from an altogether different world. Fingers crossed we might work together and we can sell their locally harvested meadow seed mixtures.

Overnighted at the Three Horseshoes in Little Cowarne. The Good Pub Guide rarely lets me down, and I’m always amazed with the quality and value our best independent pubs provide. Local produce – food and drink – the watchword. Lovely Wye Valley Bitter and fantastic draft cider from Oliver’s, which as it turns out is just down the road. And some bloke came in and bought a round of a Becks and three Carlsbergs. Sigh.

Set off for the Malvern Show with some trepidation on Saturday – my thoughts on Gardening Shows are well documented, so I won’t go over them again. Gorgeous day though, and had a lovely time. Spent most of my time in and around the “Good Life” tent to avoid the tat. Met up with Ian Roger, my main fruit tree supplier, whose amazing display of traditional apple varieties won him a Gold medal. He was even more chuffed by the response from the punters to his stand. More Perry and Cider tasting, of course; particularly liked Severn Cider’s Perry and Cider – good luck to you.

This Bloke Walked into a Pub with a Szechuan Pepper...
Bravura performances by Mark Diacono and that Joe Swift (he should be on TV), and John Wright. Mark and John were promoting their new books, which are rather good. EVERYONE with an interest in food and the countryside should read them. God knows, we all need a bit of inspiration at the moment. I wonder if social historians of the future will talk about a River Cottage movement and its impact on food. And what nice people, too. Talking of which, there were various bloggers about, including Veg Plotting and the Patient Gardener, who it was nice to see – albeit briefly. I wish I could have stayed longer for a proper chat.

Heavy HorseTo cap a fine day – and before I got lost in the ludicrously unsigned carpark – I was asked to sell Perry Pear trees at the show next year. Delighted to, especially if it means another stay in Little Cowarne. I wonder if I could sell some local seed for Keith and Suzanne too. Oh – and I almost forgot – here’s a heavy horse photo for my mum.

AAArgh…We’re All Gonna Die!!!

Bee numbers plummet as billions of colonies die across the world
(Daily Mail)

Fears for crops as shock figures from America show scale of bee catastrophe
The world may be on the brink of biological disaster after news that a third of US bee colonies did not survive the winter

…as someone commented on Guardian Online:

Uhuh. Ok. Whatever.

There’s got to be a sensible line to take through this somewhere between complacent and – well – the Daily Mail. Among the things I learnt last week at the great Bee Beano was that there have been regular instances of large scale losses of honey bee colonies over the past 100 years. Hmm. Interesting. Blimey, yes, let’s make sure folk know about the problem and let’s worry about it, but let’s keep a sense of perspective.
It would also be nice if these bee extinction stories reminded us somewhere of what we can do to to help, apart from supporting relevant research. There are fewer flowers in the countryside. We can help to compensate for that by planting more of the right sort of plants in our own gardens. As consumers we can try to encourage environmentally friendly food production. Where we live – Somerset – of course disease and climate have taken their toll recently, but my informed guess is that the principle reason for the decline in honeybee numbers (which has been going on for several decades) has been commercial pressure. Many large scale cider makers use imported apple concentrate in order to keep prices low. Small scale producers have been forced out of business. Ergo local orchards grubbed up. Ergo no bees required to pollinate the apple trees.
This officially the last post on bees for a while. And I’m bound to get complaints.

Cider for the connoisseur

Press at Hecks
We had a barrel of 2008 Bullbeggar left over, so we thought we should bottle it before the 2009s arrive. Hecks of Street have been hugely helpful throughout our community cider project, and didn’t let us down today.
Perry on tap
What nice folk and, furthermore, Perry producers, who are buying some extra trees with us from the liquidators at Scotts. We picked our way through tonnes of apples and barrels piled high in their impossibly crowded yard to bottle and pasteurise 350 bottles of Bullbeggar and see the old vintage out. These will be available to the lucky burghers of Castle Cary at our village stall on Saturday, gales permitting. Some say that if Parker ranked ciders, the 2008 Bullbeggar would be a 95.

Apple Day

Apple Picking at Ern's Orchard
Apple Picking at Ern's Orchard

…is always bathed with sunshine in our village, and we always get a good turn-out of pickers. This year we had 30+ at one point or another, including a school of students from Bristol and a pod of investment bankers enjoying a bucolic weekend. The secret life of a village is intriguing. Although the yield on Ern’s cider apple orchard was down this year we must have picked over 2 tonnes of apples before the lure of tea and cakes distracted us. Fingers crossed for the 2009 Bullbeggar which will go for pressing later this week.

Bullbeggar Cider

Bullbeggar Cider Label
Bullbeggar Cider Label
When we moved to Somerset in 2001 picked apples falling into buckets was the defining sound of autumn. We live opposite a traditional cider orchard, and for weeks from the beginning of September farmer and father-in-law picked for the local factory. The road to Shepton was full of tractors pulling apple carts. Then one year it was quiet; the factory had started to import concentrate from China, and there was no market for any local apples at all.
It seemed a shame, not just economically. The orchard, typical of local cider orchards, has a good mix of mature trees and is a real asset, not least in terms of its biodiversity value. In 2007 a group of us decided to form a village co-op and turn cider makers to keep it alive. We chose the name of the cider from an ancient local legend; the Bullbeggar of Creech Hill (which overlooks the village) is a restless spirit who waylays folk late at night. The history of human settlement on the hill goes back to the neolithic, so no-one’s quite sure where he came from.
Every year now we invite everyone to come along to pick on Apple Day and lay on a little spread for helpers. In 2008 we harvested about two and a half tonnes in no time at all, as we had half the village turn out. We don’t have our own press – yet – so we haul it off to Hecks Cider Farm for pressing, then bring the juice back to our own cider barn to ferment and rack. Some we then carbonate and bottle, some we leave in the wood for local events.
We’ve nearly recouped our investment now, thanks largely to the indefatigable Nick Smallwood, and we’ll be donating any profits to the village hall and church. The cider’s not bad either.