The Book of Pears (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015) by Joan Morgan is indispensable and a one-of-a-kind guide. It tells the story of the pear from its delightful taste and wonderful appearance to breeding and cultivation, following the fruit’s journey through history and around the world. This excerpt identifies the loss of our noble old world varieties as the markets from local to global.
Across Europe a number of other old ways of keeping fruit during the winter and earning some extra money are returning. Among these revivals are poires tapées, a form of dried pears, traditionally made from baking tougher-fleshed pears at Rivarennes, near Tours in the Loire Valley. Manufacture commenced in the early 1800s and poires tapées found a wide market, not only in homes, but restaurants, stores and shipping companies as far away as Antwerp, Stockholm and Kiel, as well as Britain. Production nearly ceased during the 1930s, under competition from imports and canned pears, but its recovery began in 1987. Villagers restored the old clay ovens and make poires tapées every year using fruit from their own orchards. Cooked, peeled pears are put in the wood-fired ovens and left there for three days to slowly dry. Taken out and fattened with a platissoire, a wooden hammer-like device, the pears are returned to a warm oven for another day to complete the drying process. Poires tapées now find a market as one of the Loire’s tourist attractions: according to one visitor, the dried pears taste of ‘a strange mixture of the pear and the smell of burnt vine and hawthorn used in the drying ovens, but excellent’.
Pears are one ingredient of Italy’s mostarda, a fashionable relish enjoyed far beyond its homeland. The ancient Martin Sec, a firm-fleshed, late keeping pear, was favored for mostarda. At its simplest, it seems pears and other fruits were cooked in newly fermented wine with some sugar and favored with senape (mustard seeds), the poor man’s spice gathered from the wild or a patch of mustard greens, and considered an aid to digestion. Another way to preserve pears, adopted in Sweden, relied on wild lingonberries, the national fruit, which contain a natural preservative. To make lingonpäron– pears in lingonberry juice – the pears were first cooked in the juice with a little sugar for taste. Then they were packed into large glazed pots, which were filled with concentrated juice so as to cover the fruit, stored in a cool dry place and set aside for winter puddings. Bottled pears used to be the star turn among British home preserves, lined up on pantry shelves waiting for an occasion on which to impress visiting relations. A prime contender for an artisan revival, it might seem, but held back by the cost of the bottles, which always made bottled fruit expensive to produce. It was never more than a cottage industry and the housewife’s standby, until finally overtaken by frozen food in the 1970s, at least in Britain, though remaining popular in other countries.
In Belgium, the country’s particular combination of fruit-growing and farming turned pears into a preserve – stroop – which is being revived, fostering both its production and the restoration of landscapes planted once again with standard trees. Stroop is a dark reddish-brown, jam-like paste, but sugar-free; it tastes intensely of fruit, though a little sharp. Stroop was also made in the Netherlands, and Germany has a similar preserve, Birnenschmaus, as does Switzerland. Farmers made their own stroop, storing it away in wooden barrels. On a larger scale, stroop produced in factories was sold from house to house in giant ten-kilo pots, to be decanted into special china stroop cups for the table and eaten spread on bread. In times of hardship stroop could serve as a substitute for meat and is remembered, sometimes with mixed feelings, as the wartime ‘beef bread’.
The taste of stroop varied according the quality of fruit and the skill of the stroopstoker, its maker. Each village often had its own stroopstoker. Every autumn, pears plus some apples were collected up from under the trees and piled into a large copper vat or kettle with a little water. The fire was lit underneath, and within four to six hours the fruit was reduced to a cooked pulp. This was ladled onto cloths spread out on a press, wrapped up and the juice squeezed out. The juice was returned to the vat, and cooked for four or more hours, stirred all the time with a giant paddle until it was sufficiently concentrated to ‘set’, then poured into containers and stored. Stroop production waxed and waned with the fortunes of agriculture. The farmer sold his fruit crop on the tree to the highest bidder and made the remainder into stroop, but his main interest lay in the herd of beef cattle or dairy cows grazing beneath the trees. The focus changed, however, when, as in Britain, farming went into a period of depression at the end of the nineteenth century; then stroop manufacture expanded into big business. In the area around the village of Borgloon in Limburg province, for example, 92 stroop-making units were registered between 1844 and 1880, but from 1880 to 1914 the expanded numbers included five factories, some even with their own railway links. As Belgium began supplying international fruit markets during the 1920s and 1930s, the old style of standard trees and grazing livestock began to be abandoned. Now Belgium is a European leader in market pears and modern systems, which in more ways than one have contributed to the near demise of their native fruit spread.
A prime requirement for a stroop pear is a high pectin content, found in many of the old, local varieties, though not necessarily a property of the finest buttery specimens and those planted for commercial sales. This is one situation where the pears must not be too juicy and hence more expensive to concentrate, yet release their juice freely. Conference, now the main market pear, for instance, does not always make good stroop. But old trees are being rescued, old varieties planted again and stroop manufacture encouraged. The Belgium conservation group Nationale Boomgaarden Stichting of Hasselt in Limburg, for instance, campaigns for the planting of standard trees of traditional varieties and for stroop production, and itself undertakes both, helping to reinstate stroop’s popularity as an artisan preserve with just the right credentials for today’s tastes. A simple, sugar-free spread, it finds sales now as an attractive, wholesome alternative to mass-produced jams.