Thursday, 7 May 2015

What a nice pear!

Beware! You cannot rely on shape to tell the difference between an apple and a pear! 

Pears belong to the ancient Rosaceae (Rose) family dating back 100 million years, when the flowering plants were starting to colonise the planet. By contrast just 100 years ago botanists lumped together pears and apples together into one genus “Pyrus”, whilst today they are separated (apples being now classified in the “Malus” genus).
Dollshouse miniature food, MedievalMorsels' 12th scale pears 

 The genus Pyrus, native to the Northern Hemisphere of the Old World, consists of about 20 wild species of which half are found in Europe, North Africa, and Asia minor; and half in Asia. These have given rise to two groups of cultivated pears, the soft-fleshed European Pyrus communis and the crisp-fleshed Asiatic pears.

Asian pears, long distant cousins of European pears and crisp fleshed!

Here are some splendid examples of the latter, bought at a local supermarket. These are the Shandong variety of Asian pear were grown in China, and come regrettably with a carbon footprint. But what a fine pair, and one to spare!

In Asia, the culture of pear goes back 2500–3000 years and has been chronicled in Chinese writings from at least 1200 years ago. Pear was long considered a delicacy for the wealthy, along with the peach and apricot.

The precise origin of the European pear is still unknown but it has been with us since prehistoric times and dried slices have been unearthed in Swiss cave dwellings of the Ice Age.

A popular fruit of Medieval and Renaissance (Tudor in England) times pears were used much as a vegetable to add bulk, texture and to sweeten to pottages, stews, sauces for meats and fillings for pies. Pies such as this 12th scale dollshouse miniature made by MedievalMorsels.
Pears, which generally needed to be cooked, were used just like vegetables in Medieval, Tudor pies!

Cross pollination between orchard grown and wild pears was easy, so there was a viable, long-lived (up to 300 years for an individual pear tree) naturalised wild stock producing pears. Meaning there were plenty to go around in season, even in a peasant home. But there was a drawback!  These pears had to be cooked. Poaching in sweet red wine was a favourite dish for the nobility. I had a go at this dish during the Richard III re-interment and reburial celebrations, but I did not have good light to photograph the end result by!

Pears in wine with spices including cinnamon sticks, made by me!

According to expert Jim Chapman, Harris fruiterer to Henry VIII, introduced a wide range of dessert pears which did not need cooking from France and the Low Countries in 1533.  That made life easier then! But research indicates that the Romans probably introduced the original, hard cultivated pear to Britain, where the wild pear already existed. After the Romans left, in Anglo-Saxon times a pear tree was one of the six most common trees cited as boundary markers. I think that is a lovely thought! And the spread of the monastic movement throughout Europe, including Britain, ensured that Roman knowledge of pear culture was not forgotten. Hooray!

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