Minding your P’s and Q’s….how to get the best from Pears and Quince

That there is some relationship between the pear and the quince is obvious from their shape, but whilst the quince has to be cooked to render it edible, a perfectly ripe and juicy pear eaten raw is a delightful, if somewhat rare, experience.

Ripening pears needs care, the sort of care that is seldom found in a world geared to mass production.  It also needs the type of storage conditions that are in short supply in most households, making this a frustrating fruit to grow in your garden.  All of which makes it inevitable that at some stage you are likely to come across the less- than- perfectly-ripened pear, which will respond better to cooking.

Before admitting defeat, let’s look first at how to optimise the chances of getting at least some perfect eating pears from your crop.

The first step is to judge when to pick them.  Early ripening pears, such as Jargonelle, Williams and Beth can be disappointing in flavour, and potentially grainy in texture, if left to ripen fully on the tree.  So pick as soon as the stalks break easily, but whilst the pears are still firm.   Handle them extremely gently, as any bruising will cause the pears to rot.  Transfer the pears immediately to the bottom of the fridge.  Even a couple of days in the dark at a temperature close to 1˚C will help ensure even ripening later on.   Pears left in the fridge will remain hard for quite some time, but when you bring them to room temperature they should ripen within a couple of days.  Because the pears ripen (and rot) from the inside out, the best spot to check for ripeness is near the stalk.

The process is similar for late ripening pears, if for different reasons, i.e. that our season is usually not long enough for these pears to ripen adequately on the tree.    Late season apples are also picked before they are fully ripe and stored for a period before being eaten, but note that they should not be stored in close proximity to pears as the gasses given off during ripening will interfere with the natural process for both fruit.  So, in a domestic setting, it may be best to invest in a separate fridge for storing pears, whilst keeping the apples in a cool outhouse.

Britain has far fewer native pears than apples, but those that do have a place in our culinary heritage were actually meant for cooking.  Cooking pears were termed wardens or wardons in late medieval England, taking their name from the abbey of Wardon in Bedfordshire, although no-one seems to know why.   Like apples, pears do not grow true from seed, making them a species of infinite variety, and these warden pears almost certainly sprang from the wild pears which were once common in our hedgerows, although now very rare.  The most famous named variety is the Black Worcester, which has been a feature of the coat of arms for the city of Worcester since 1575.  By that time the region was already gaining a reputation for its Perry, which originally would have been made from the wild pears, until gradually specific varieties of Perry Pear were cultivated for the purpose.

Let’s now turn our attention to Quinces, which are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Although not native to the UK, Pyrus Cydonia has been grown here since the 13th century and was quite common between the 16th and 18th centuries, especially for Quince Marmalade.  So despite being mainly associated with Mediterranean countries, they do have a long heritage here and will grow happily as far north as Yorkshire.  Shelter and sunshine are both important for quince, although it does not mind in what soil it grows – it is actually quite happy to stand in water making it ideal for those less well drained spots within an orchard.

However, they do not usually ripen fully on the tree in this country.  Old country lore says they should be picked on a waning moon, but whilst the weather is still fine.  Late October or early November is about as late as you can leave it, because they should certainly be brought in before the first frosts.  In a warm kitchen they will complete their ripening quite quickly – the delicious aroma will tell you when that point has arrived.  They ripen from the outside in, and will always be firm, so don’t expect them to soften.  The flesh is rather gritty and the core positively hard.  This hard core needs to be removed but the gritty flesh will soften on cooking.  Although they will discolour on cutting, just like apples, as they cook to a beautiful pinky-orange colour this will disappear so don’t worry about it.

What you do with them depends largely on the quantity available.  Because the flesh is dry rather than juicy, I don’t usually make Quince Jelly even though I find it useful in the kitchen.  When my own quince tree is more mature it may yield sufficient for this, and certainly the pectin content is high ensuring a good set.   But for the time being I am more than happy to support the fundraising efforts of the good ladies in a neighbouring village.  The church path of St Andrew’s in Compton Martin is lined with quince trees, which since antiquity have been a symbol of love, marriage and family and the fruit from these trees is made into jelly each year.

Happily a small quantity of quince goes a very long way.  A single slice would scent a whole apple pie and the old recipe for Quince Marmalade includes slices that would often have been used in this way.  What I usually do is bottle slices poached in spiced sweet white wine.  These are then available for desserts (a Quince Trifle is lovely), breakfast, or serving with meat.  There is quite a lot of waste – peel, core and pips from this recipe and this I add to more quinces to make Quince Cheese (the Spanish Membrillo).  This paste is in itself quite versatile.  It is usually served with cheese – try it with very mature Cheddar; but it can also be served with coffee or added to a variety of other dishes to impart its wonderful flavour.

Click here for these and other recipes for quince and pear.

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