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



Which Fruit Trees Should I Grow?

I want to grow some fruit trees, but where do I start? I don’t understand pollination groups or rootstocks, or the difference between a stepover and a cordon and a maiden and a bush. Help!

It’s a familiar cry. Folk quickly get bogged down when they’re shopping for fruit trees, as there are so many varieties and options open to them if they want to do things properly, rather than nip down to the nearest B&Q and end up with the wrong type of fruit tree. I’m faced with the same problem at the moment as we consider the possibilities for our new garden, so I went back to basics…

I like these…

1. Which fruit do I/we like? Grow the fruit you want to eat! Delicious they may be to some, but I’m not very keen on Medlars – so there’s absolutely no point planting them. Although it’s easier said than done these days, try to find different varieties to taste. Although they’er not West country varieties, I’m a big fan of the apples Ashmead’s Kernel and St. Edmund’s Pippin, which we’ll be planting; I originally tried them at a local farmer’s market – no way would you find them in a supermarket.

2. What am I going to use the fruit for? Is there a keen cook in the house? If there’s someone who wants to make jams and flans it will not only influence the varieties you buy, but also the volume of fruit you can deal with. You’ll also need appreciative consumers. You might not like cider, but everyone loves home made apple juice – which you can freeze as well as drink fresh. An orchard sized apple tree can produce something like 1000lbs of fruit – that’s a lot of apple juice! If you have several of one type of fruit, make sure they ripen at different times and/or that you’re buying a variety that stores well.

3. Do I want anything else from my fruit trees? You may have secondary considerations to think about, maybe aesthetic. You might want particularly attractive blossom, of a certain colour and/or timing, or you might like nice looking fruit. In the Mann household there are other considerations too – I like early flowering varieties for my bees, which leads me to looking at more exotic options like Almonds.

Big trees for a good workout

4. How much space do I have? By grafting onto rootstocks of different vigour you can have a tree of the same variety but very different size. Obviously, you’ll get less fruit from the smaller trees, but they can be a lot more convenient. We only sell varieties grafted on larger rootstocks – see here for details of sizes and planting spaces – but you can find really dwarfing rootstocks or, alternatively, “cordons”, which can be planted under a metre apart. You can buy trained forms as well, to grow up walls and along paths.

5. What are the local conditions like? It’s no coincidence that we are surrounded by apples as we have heavy soil and wet weather, which puts paid to Quinces, for example. Perry Pears do well hereabouts too, which explains why Babycham was made down the road. Plums, on the other hand, prefer lighter soils. They will stand the wind though and, consequently, work well in exposed sites or around the edge of a mixed orchard, where they will protect other trees. By way of contrast pears need sun and shelter. If you’re not sure what will do well in your own garden, do some research. Have a look around to see what’s growing close to you, and find out if there are any trees which have either orginated from the area or were widely grown.

6. Do I need to think about pollination? Mostly not. Apples are easy; there’ll generally be another apple or crab apple within a quater of a mile to act as a pollinator. Most plums and gages are self fertile. The only tricky customer is the pear, most of which are self sterile, so will need at least another tree in the vicinity. If you’re worried consult a pollination list, but I suspect the most important thing you can do to encourage pollination is to encourage the pollinators.

7. How big a tree should I buy? This is a different question to any consideration about rootstocks. You can buy a one year old “maiden” tree, which is little more than a stick, and if it has been grafted onto a vigorous rootstock it will grow into a tree over 4m tall in no time. It’s tempting to buy as big as tree as you can find; you’ll get fruit quicker and it will look more impressive where you need it to. On balance, though, try to avoid it. It’s not so much the obvious cost differential as how well the tree will develop – you’ve got a much better chance of successfully growing a long lived and healthy tree from a small sapling as from a larger tree (say 6 foot and over) that’s been wrenched out of the ground to get to you. You won’t have to stake it or dig a whopping big hole to plant it in, and it has a much higher % of its root system intact. Simples. Within a few years the sapling will overtake the bigger tree anyway. Don’t – whatever you do – buy some fancy semi-mature or even mature fruit tree. It will cost you a fortune and it will fall over.

I’ve put a tentative fruit tree order in for this autumn’s bare root planting season. I’ll be getting the trees from me, if you see what I mean, but if you don’t buy your trees from Habitat Aid please use a specialist British nursery.