Monday, October 6, 2008

Seasonal Produce: Pears

With the looming descent of autumnal weather, a great many of my favorite fresh produces are hitting their peak seasons. Pumpkins, apples, cranberries and pomegranates are all prevalent from September on, but chief among these, in my humble opinion, are Pears. Literally dozens of varieties of this delicious fruit become readily available around this time of year, with new types appearing in your local market (even supermarket) from late September all the way through to February.

Pears have been a relative staple of the human diet the world over (particularly in cooler climates) since the days of antiquity, being known of and cultivated by the ancient Greeks & Romans. The fruit is mentioned several times in Pliny the Elder's 1st century text, Natural History, where he particularly noted their use in producing a variety of wine called Castomoniale. The 4th-century writer Palladius further mentions this beverage, citing in his Opus Agriculturae that Romans preferred it to wine made from apples.

What's more, one of the earliest known cookbooks - the 4th century work Apicus - lists several recipes for preparing the fruit as per the apparent Roman belief that pears were best enjoyed cooked & heavily-spiced (stewed in honey or cooked in a soufflé-like patina) rather than raw. Records similarly indicate that at the time of the Roman conquests of Gaul, the peoples there were already utilizing pears to produce both wine and a variation on hard (apple) cider. This tradition carried through the medieval period, spreading to England during the reign of Henry VIII, where the beverage acquired the name "Perry". Similarly, the spread of distillation around the same period brought about the delicious Eau de Vie de Poire.

However, for use in modern cocktails those crazy Romans may have been onto something with their notion of preparing pears - particularly with the use of spices. Depending on the variety, pears, while perfectly delicious raw, often have the kind of subtle flavor which can be enhanced by (or act as the perfect foil for) all manner of stronger spice flavors. Ginger, Cinnamon, Tarragon, Cardamom, Vanilla, Clove, Nutmeg, Anise, even Juniper and Saffron have all been combined with pears by chefs, both pastry & culinary, for many centuries clear through to the modern day. In keeping with that notion, might I suggest this delicious libation which carefully balances the silky texture and flavors of pear, the spice of ginger, and the botanicals of both Pimm's & Gin rather delightfully (©):

P & G Cocktail
1½ oz. Pimm's No. 1
½ oz. Plymouth Gin
2 oz. organic Pear nectar
¼ fresh d'Anjou Pear
2 dashes: Angostura bitters
Ginger beer
In a mixing glass muddle the fresh Pear with the Gin & bitters. Combine remaining ingredients (except Ginger beer) & shake with plenty of ice. Fine strain into a chimney glass and top with Ginger beer. Stir briefly and garnish with a slice of fresh Pear and a sliver of crystallized Ginger (optional).

Returning to our Roman friends' practice of stewing pears in honey & spices once more, one finds another great use for the fruit in libations. Poached pears, long a potent item in the pastry chef's arsenal, can be used to add sweetness, spice and flavor to any number of drinks which may be well-enhanced by any of those elements. At its most basic, poaching pears (or most any firm fruit) merely requires you to skin & remove the cores from the fruit before simmering for about twenty-five minutes in a 3:1 mixture of water & either sugar or honey. From there the sky is the limit: adding spices, citrus zest, wine, or most any other savory ingredient to the mix can result in some truly marvelous creations.

The great recipe for pears poached in Saffron-Vanilla syrup posted at Figs with Bri, for example, makes a fantastic addition (though a plain honey-poached one works fine too) to the following libation - itself a riff on the classic autumnal Stone Fence. Much like that venerable cocktail, one can use a commercially-available Perry (such as Woodchuck) or the adventurous can ferment their own by leaving a non-pasteurized Pear cider/nectar out in a cool, dark place for 5-6 days (uncovering occasionally to release the accumulated gasses). Either method will endow you with a dry, lightly-alcoholic and very tasty 'cider' which can be used to great effect in (©):

Perry's Mason
1¼ oz. Eau de Vie de Poire (Pear William)
¾ oz. Irish Whiskey (Redbreast or another full-flavored variety)
Perry cider (see above)
2-3 slices: Poached Pear
Combine spirits & poached Pear slices in a Highball glass half-filled with ice. Fill up with Perry, stir briefly and enjoy un-garnished & un-varnished.

Embracing Seasonal Flavors
With the growing popularity of fine-dining establishments, one doesn't need to delve into ancient history or even the kitchen to enjoy the taste of fresh pears in libations or cuisine. Great restaurants & bars all over the world have been embracing a seasonal outlook on fresh produce for quite some time - a concept which really brings some delicious, high-quality drinks and dishes to both bar & table. One such establishment is my favorite 'local: the highly-rated Catherine Lombardi's in downtown New Brunswick, New Jersey. The outspoken principles on fresh, local ingredients of co-owners Francis Schott and Mark Pascal (of Restaurant Guys Radio fame), together with a top-notch bar & kitchen-staff, regularly produce truly fantastic culinary creations, such as Mr. Schott's own (delicious) autumnal cocktail:

The Irish Twin
1½ oz. Jameson's Irish Whiskey
2 oz. organic Pear nectar
½ oz. Honey syrup (1:1 - Honey:Water)
1 dash: ground Cinnamon
1 slice: fresh Pear
Combine liquid ingredients and dash of Cinnamon in a mixing glass with lots of ice & shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass & garnish with the slice of fresh Pear (dusted on one side with a little cinnamon).

If you find yourself in the New Jersey area sometime this Fall, a stop into New Brunswick and the beautiful bar at Lombardi's would not be amiss. Ask for an Irish Twin, perhaps an antipasta or two, and escape autumn's chill with some of the great produce of the season...


PS - For those of you gentle readers with some homebrewing experience who want to have a go at brewing a real Perry, the UK-based Real Cider and Perry Pages contain some excellent reading material on the topic...


Tiare said...

There´s some bloody fine cocktails you have here Chris! and and saffron-vanilla syrup??? (Tiare goes to the stove.........)


Chris "Rookie" Stanley said...

Thanks Tiare! The Saffron-Vanilla syrup is grand (and the pears you cook in it are equally fantastic).

In addition to the cocktail, have some of those over a bit of vanilla ice cream...damn I wish I was at home...


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