Joni Woolf: About those pear preserves …
The peach season, alas, is gone, but the time of pear picking is upon us, so consider the lowly stepsister of the mighty peach. Pears do not enjoy quite the same popularity as the glorious, mouth-watering jewel of summer, especially here in the heart of Elberta Peach country. But take a deep breath and remove your blinders, while we do consider the fruit of legend (the ancient Greeks believed Athena was the mother of pear trees).
On our Bumphead Head road property grows what was once, I’m sure, a fine pear tree. But ever since we have owned the property — some 12 years — the tree has been only a shell, ripe for removal. The trunk — what remains of it — is hollowed out so that only a couple of inches of wood in a sort of semi-circle hold up what remains: a singular trunk with scant limbs growing no taller than 20 feet (in a good year). It is not a thing of beauty. And yet … every year about this time, the tree brings forth hundreds of large, round pears, a variety we have not been able to identify. They are hard pears, and tasty, perfect for preserving. Most years I have watched them fall to the ground, to be eaten by the local deer population, and any other creatures who are attracted to their natural goodness. But this year, I somehow felt that I owed it to that tree’s tenacity — its will to live and produce — to find a recipe for pear preserves, a recipe worthy of the tree’s enduring effort.
There are nominal advantages to becoming really old, but one very real one is that, confidence in one’s abilities is no longer threatened by strict rules. There was a time I would not have varied from any recipe by one-fourth a teaspoon. Lately, though, I am comfortable with picking and choosing parts of this recipe and that one, deciding for myself what will work best. Sometimes I mess up, but that doesn’t bother me so much anymore, either. So it was that I came to the task of making preserves. I consulted my favorite cookbook authors, Virginia Willis, Louise Dodd, Mildred Warren and others, and read their directions very carefully. Then I picked up a small cookbook called “Bo’s Best,” compiled by a former Macon colleague, Alacia Rhame (a native of my hometown of Quitman, Ga.) and members of her family. It features favorite recipes created by the family’s cook, “Bo” McIntosh and was published on the occasion of her 90th birthday. Her recipe for pear preserves was simple: Peel the pears (1/2 bushel or so), slice them and measure two cups of pear slices and one cup of sugar and place in large pan … add two lemons, sliced. Continue adding two cups pears and one cup sugar till pears are used up, then cover with water. At this point I decided to follow another recipe’s directions — n fact three others called for letting the pears sit overnight. So I did that. The next morning, I began to cook them, and could never quite decide when they were ready. That’s when my daughter reminded me that her husband depended on a cooking thermometer for perfect results. So, I decided I would cook the pears to 220 degrees F., just below the temperature for some frostings and candies. As it turned out, this was perfect. The preserves were reddish brown and the syrup was thick, but not candied. I popped them into sterilized jars and within 10 minutes, all the jars had sealed. The old tree had come through and I owed it something more than gratitude — omething like reverence for surviving against the odds.
Pear preserves are great, of course, on biscuits — and I make a rather good biscuit. But younger food enthusiasts are trying new ways of using traditional foods, and one I’ve seen recently is to use preserves such as these poured over a block of soft, white cheese, and served with a garnish of a couple of stems of rosemary, accompanied by a mild cracker such as a water wafer (not a cracker with lots of flavors added to it). It makes a tasty and attractive hors d’ouevre. Or cut a baguette in half, brush lightly with olive oil and toast slowly till crisp. Then top with preserves … and maybe a tiny slice of prosciutto. You can almost taste autumn around the corner.
Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved fro her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org