It is, in my view, the duty of an apple to be crisp and crunchable, but a pear should have such a texture as leads to silent consumption. - Edward Bunyard, 'The Anatomy of Dessert’
Why do we like some things and dislike others? Why do some foods titillate our palates and some foods turn us off? And why do yet others make us shiver with delight or shudder in pure disgust? Taste, smell, texture, memory.
Memory. I cannot eat white chocolate because of a long ago experience, the young teen that I was gorging on a bagful of white chocolate stars to the point of illness.
Smell. Coffee is the nectar of the gods, a heavenly fragrance. As a cup of coffee, no matter how bitter, cloyingly sweet from too much sugar, weak and watery as only American hotels can serve, I breathe deeply, consume the odor, devour the heady aroma, and am satisfied. The coffee tastes just that much better as the scent is carried to my nostrils, feeds my brain and my memories.
Taste. They say that there is a genetic element to taste, whether we love or hate fresh coriander, cooked carrots or anything else. I have one son that always gobbled down plates piled high with vegetables but disliked fruit, while the other son always loved fruit yet clamped his mouth shut when vegetables were carried towards him. My own tastes have changed since I was a kid: I used to love beets and tongue and now the one and the other make me shudder with revulsion.
Texture. The sugary sweetness of pears, the juiciness of a ripe Comice or Conference drives my men wild, the only fruit all three of them love. Husband buys them half a dozen at a time, pale gold, tinged with green or blushing red, plump and curvaceous. But I just cannot, no matter how hard I try. Oh, the flavor is beautiful, I will admit, but the texture of a pear, the ever-so slight, barely perceptible crunch, the disturbance of the inexplicable grittiness, the flesh too moist, too soft, melting away to nothing rather than offering up resistance, a satisfying bite, only made more apparent when cooked.
While others call the pear “fondante”, meltingly smooth, I call the pear's pulp weak and lacking personality, a texture that does not live up to its flavor, a promise not kept.
There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Bundled up in sweaters and coats, hands pushed into gloves, gloved fists pushed deep down into pockets, we head briskly to market on a chilly Sunday morning.
Pears and apples are the season’s harbingers, the first autumn fruit to appear on the market stalls, even before the mounds of grapes in purple (so deep a purple they are almost black) and green (the larger sea-glass green like bunches of playing marbles or the pearl-sized grapes, the skins transparent revealing the seeds hanging in space like tiny flies in amber), before the mushrooms, the common to the uncommon, lying placidly, as mushrooms are wont to do, in piles near the front in elegant, gentle shades of brown and cream and gold while the first clementines are just making their tentative appearance from sunny Spain (and while the citrus is still tart, not yet sweet enough, the pears and apples are sugary and luscious).
The apple and pear people are back with the first chill, also harbingers of the season, making their rambunctious, rustic appearance, taking up their usual market spot outdoors under the eaves. Two vibrant women, hair hurriedly pushed back into scraggly ponytails, old, worn cardigans tucked under heavy blue cotton aprons, dash back and forth from client to bin and back again, selecting from a seemingly never-ending array of apples and pears fresh off the branches, explaining which are for eating, which baking, which are sweet and which are tart. They unceremoniously dump the fruit in scrubbed, stained plastic basins perched atop one of two scales, expertly translating weight to cost. Their male colleagues, in spite of my own prejudice, are just as informed, just as knowledgeable as to which apples (the reines de reinettes, the fuji, the jonagold) or pears (the comice, williams, or conference) are best for eating, for baking into a tart or a clafoutis or roasting and caramelizing for a savory dish.
I glance over the crude wooden orchard crates filled with golden green and red fruit (the color of autumn leaves) and breathe in deeply the wonderful fragrance of autumn as we await the "go ahead, you're next what do you want?" nod from one of the vendeuses.
The very first time I saw a pruned pear tree was in the Jacques Tati film Mon Oncle. The eccentric, old-fashioned uncle wanders around his sister and brother-in-law’s designer garden in wonder and we see what he sees with the same childlike innocence. Once inside the automatic, electronic gates, one enters into the idealized, architecturally futuristic, geometrical, symmetrical garden. Tati steps gingerly along the cement path, weaving in and out of gravel plots, hops from stepping stone to stepping stone around ultra-modern garden furniture and fountains, wends his way through the impeccably kept yard of the villa, a temple of "good taste" and a shrine to financial and social success.
At one point in the film, Tati, l’oncle, the uncle, wanders around the garden observing the oddities and comes upon two pear trees pruned and attached flat to the wall of the house, espaliered or trimmed and trained in a classic fan or vase shape, perfectly symmetrical and rather barren, ornamental rather than encouraged to bear fruit. He observes the trees in wonder and accidentally – or on purpose – breaks the branch off of one of the trees. An act of rebellion, a statement of taste.
Since that time, we have driven by pear orchards and I have observed poiriers, pear trees, pruned and trained in this fashion, strung up on trellises in rows upon rows, perfectly aligned, very sculptural. I am fascinated by the beauty and elegance, so refined, so purposeful compared to the unkept, rustic beauty of an apple orchard.
We longed for an outing, a bit of culture, a museum or two, a garden to stroll through, a meal to enjoy. We drove an hour east to the city of Angers, the capital of Anjou, the cradle of the Plantagenets, home of the medieval Apocalypse Tapestry and the stunning Château du Roi René, a solid fortress, the chateau of the Dukes of Anjou.
As we wound our way, camera in hand, towards the Fine Arts Museum, we found ourselves in a tiny garden leading up to the museum. I stopped and turned around, glancing right and left over the well-pruned plants in a gathering of perfect globes of green and I spied a plaque on a stone wall.
Dans ce Jardin
fut obtenue en 1849 – 1850
la Poire Célébre ‘Doyenné du Comice”
par le Jardinier DHommé et Millet de la Turtaudière
Président du Comice Horticole
- 12 Octobre 1955 –
The birthplace of the Doyenne de Comice Pear in the year 1849 - 1850. Right where I was standing, what was then the Comice Horticulture Fruit Garden. And in 1894, the London Journal of Horticulture names the Doyenné du Comice the Best Pear in the World.
I much prefer apple desserts to anything made with pears, but to please my husband I do make the occasional pastry or cake with ripe Conférence, Comice or tiny tender Williams. This Ricotta Tart is surprisingly light while being creamy, the ricotta giving it that slight hint of nutty, the taste of a ricotta cheesecake without the heaviness. I normally make this in the summer months using plums, but couldn’t resist making it with pears, the sweeter and riper the better. The pears paired so perfectly with the ricotta filling that I even found myself enjoying several slices. Simple to make and a delightful seasonal treat.
JAMIE’S RICOTTA TART WITH PEARS
Single Sweet Pastry Pie Crust for a 9-inch (23-cm) pie plate
Scant ¼ cup (100 ml) heavy or light cream
2 Tbs flour
1 cup (250 g) whole milk ricotta
¼ cup (50 g) granulated white sugar or more to taste
2 large eggs
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp vanilla
1 Tbs amber rum or Amaretto
About 21 oz (600 g) small ripe pears, peeled, cored and sliced
1 Tbs granulated brown sugar
2 - 3 Tbs slivered almonds or Italian pine nuts
Pre-baked Sweet Pastry Crust:
Lightly but thoroughly butter a 9-inch (23-cm) pie plate, line with the dough. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes while the oven preheats.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Remove the Pie Shell from the refrigerator. Prick the base all over with a fork and place a piece of ovenproof parchment paper in the shell and pour on pastry weights or dried beans. Bake for 8 minutes. Carefully remove from the oven, lift out the parchment paper with the beans and return the shell to the oven to bake for another 8 - 10 minutes until the bottom is set and golden.
Remove the shell from the oven to a cooling rack and lower the oven temperature to 375°F (190°C).
Prepare the Ricotta Filling:
Place the cream in a small bowl. Sift the 2 tablespoons of flour over the cream and stir or whisk together until blended, smooth and thick.
Place the ricotta in a large mixing bowl with the 2 eggs and beat or whisk until blended, smooth and creamy. Add the sugar, the flour-cream paste, the ground cinnamon, vanilla and rum or Amaretto and beat just until blended and smooth. Taste the ricotta filling and add more sugar or flavoring if desired.
Lay the pear slices in the pre-baked pastry shell in concentric circles, pressed together or slightly overlapping. Pour the ricotta filling in the shell over the pears and spread to smooth. Sprinkle the tablespoon of granulated brown sugar all over the filling then sprinkle a tablespoon or two of slivered almonds or pine nuts on top.
Bake for about 45 minutes or until the piecrust is a deep golden brown and the ricotta filling is set in the center. The fruit should be tender. Remove from the oven to a cooling rack and allow to cool to room temperature before slicing and serving. The tart can be eaten at room temperature or chilled, but store any leftover tart in the refrigerator; chilling the tart in the refrigerator will set the filling if you prefer it that way.