- 11 November 2009
A Partridge in a Pear Tree.
"We may have over a hundred TV channels, but the Victorians had seven hundred different varieties of pear. Almost all of them are now unobtainable, except by some rare fluke."
Julia Gasper - 11 November 2009
A few weeks ago, such a fluke happened to me; I went to stay with an old friend and discovered that behind his house was a neglected orchard in which three ancient pear trees were laden with fruit. The apple and plum trees had long ago fallen into decay, but pear trees can live and go on producing fruit for up to two hundred years. These venerable trees, overgrown, unpruned, and unruly, were weighted down with their bronze treasure, and more of it lay all around in the long grass. The pears were oddities by modern standards, funny shapes and sizes, but absolutely scrumptious.
When I last went to the Farmers’ Market here in Headington, I was pleased to see pears, but disappointed that they were the same variety stocked by a supermarkets everywhere, the Conference. The reason this has become almost the only variety of pear available on the British market is that it’s very disease-resistant and reliable, cropping every year at the same time. The fruits can be picked while hard and transported. These are great virtues from the point of view of the commercial grower, but what about taste? The flavour of Conference is rather bland and insipid compared to that of older favourites, such as the Bergamotte Esperen or Doyenne du Comice. It is also liable to be a bit mushy in texture. The older pears the Victorians knew had a range of amazing flavours, some of them like pineapple or muscatel grapes, some sharp and crisp, some perfumed like rose-water. They could be rather small or very big and unwieldy. Not all of them were white inside - they might be pink or yellowish - and some of them had amazing names like Worcester Black or Vicar of Winkfield. They are juicy, drippy and slurpy, and almost nothing you do to them in my opinion really improves on the raw thing. If you are determined to cook dessert pears they go rather well mixed with apples in an Eve’s Pudding, spiced with cloves, cinnamon and powdered ginger. To be a little more decadent, lace them with chestnut liqueur.
The sad fact is that nearly half of Britain's pear orchards have been destroyed since 1970. So we need to bring back the pear in the English garden, something worth doing if only for its lovely blossom. Go to a garden centre or search the internet: there are plenty of businesses here and there that can supply you with pear trees including a few unusual old varieties. I found a business in Wales that is selling two rare types of “Heritage” pears, Snowdon Queen and Penrhyn Castle, and I hope that other nurseries will follow suit. As a result of cunning grafting, pear trees can be full-size, dwarf or even small enough to grow in a pot on the patio. Pollination is less of a problem than you might think. Pear trees need a suitable pollination partner to make them fertile, but experienced nurserymen know that the bees can cross-pollinate them up to a far greater distance than any other kind of fruit, sometimes several miles. So it is quite possible for a single pear tree to have fruit if there is another pear tree anywhere in the neighbourhood. If you want to make sure, plant two or even three, and if you haven’t got room, you can get a “dual” pear tree, with two different varieties grafted onto a single trunk. These will happily pollinate each other and give you two different sorts of pear side by side.
I always wondered why it was that in the Twelve Days of Christmas, the first gift and most memorable gift was a partridge in a pear tree. Why a pear tree? What was the association between pears and December? In fact, different varieties of pear ripen at different times of year. Some produce fruit in the Spring, others in the summer or autumn and many of the prized older varieties in the middle of winter. The Beurre d’Aremberg, for instance, a French variety, ripens in December to January, so it would be just right for a Christmas feast. The best orchards were planted with a range of pears for different seasons, so that people could have fruit all the year round. The problem of storage was thus completely avoided. You just left them on the tree, right through the freezing winter months, to be picked and eaten long after all the other fruit were finished and forgotten.
As for the partridge, that is a bird which once provided food in the middle of winter too. Under the Normans, game-birds were reserved for the nobles, and it was illegal for mere commoners to eat them, so in the song it is a symbol of luxury. But the partridge is now a threatened species in England. It has almost entirely vanished in Ireland and here it is in serious danger, as its habitats are destroyed year by year. Most of the partridges we have left are the French red-legged ones, while the native grey depends for survival on people breeding it to shoot. The numbers are down to a fraction of what we had only a generation ago. If you want to help the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust with their partridge-count scheme, you could ring 01425 652381. Of course, you have to know what a partridge looks like, first. And you are certainly very unlikely to see one in a pear tree.
by Julia Gasper - 11 November 2009