October : Pears and Picnics

I changed house five times in the last year. Life of a student, you might say. Indeed.

In the courtyard of my new house there’s a pear tree. It gifted us all with plenty of crunchy, sugary fruits since the end of August. We couldn’t resist picking some slightly unripe ones which were hanging at head level. The first bite was reveling: a sugary and at the same time sour nectar was dripping from the bitten flash and running down our mouths and hands, pleasing our tongues with hints of minerality and sweetness.

These will be so good with that cheese“, I thought.

I waited a few more days, then I  started the real harvest–picking the remaining pears. The sun turned their South-faced side into bright red and heated their inner juice and flash as it was still Summer. September was one bright sunny day after the other, and temperatures invited me to stay outside, eat light meals and snack on those fruits. 

October took the scene in silence, without me noticing the change, giving us mild days, fresh mornings and nights, clear sky. The first weekend of the month, after a lazy breakfast, J. and I decided we wanted to go for a bike ride, with short sleeves and picnic food to eat on the way. Of course, we took some pears. 

The bike path from where we live, Bra, to Alba consists in an unpaved road along the Tanaro river. On the way, we encountered tomatoes, beautiful wild flowers, zucchini fields, and wild berries. The air was fresh and the sun was shining on our heads. I couldn’t think of anything more pleasant.

We stopped a few times to pick some flowers and some zucchini with their blossom. We couldn’t leave them there, we had to take them home.
Frittata for dinner? Sure! 

Half way though our ride, we saw a little stone table set there for bikers’ refreshment. It was lunch time and we were hungry. We stopped and pulled out food from the basket. Wine, bread, cheese, pears, salad, olives –it was picnic food, nothing else. Right what we wanted.

Is there anything better than pears with cheese on a slice of good sourdough bread? This was our picnic sandwich, with only a thin layer of Dijon mustard for a little flavor boost. A little salad and a couple of good green olives were on a side, a glass of white wine on the other. With a bright sun upon us, and nature all around, that was one of the best October weekends we would ever remember. 

Back at home, I tried to replicate the cheese and pear marriage another time, in a salad, and I considered it a successful experiment. I had some leftover cooked green lentils and I tossed them with some rocket, some pear slices and a little blue cheese. A pinch of saltolive oil and balsamic vinegar for seasoning, bread (always bread!) and red wine. Easy and tasty dinner. Pears were saving us. 

Then, the temperature dropped suddenly. I woke up one morning and the chilly air tingled my nose while opening my window. October was finding itself, understanding its real, autumnal essence. That morning, I made oatmeal for the first time in months. For lunch, a warming squash soup with some castelmagno cheese crumbled on top. I felt the need for a dessert, but I hadn’t any except for what remained of our lovely pears. I felt the need for warm spices mixed with fruit and sugar in coffee cake, crumble,  pie, jam. 

That same night, I made star anise and pear jam. The gesture of chopping those pears, mixing them with sugar, getting them ready for the mutation into spreadable goodness, was a like bringing to the surface a pleasure I had forgot about. When I went to bed, the whole house was still perfuming of caramel and spice, and I fell asleep thinking of the morning after, of a good breakfast with jam on toast.

While J. was gone, I turned on the oven and made me a gift with some cinnamon in it. I baked six little pear and cinnamon muffins to eat in my lazy afternoons, between reading and sleeping. They were good and healthy, and they lasted one week, one per day, until J.’s arrival. I love baking just for myself  sometimes: it feels safe, I know what I like. It feels like I love myself a little more.

After all this cooking and eating pears, only four remained, lying in solitude in their basket on the kitchen table. I had some bottles of Barbaresco opened for a tasting and abandoned almost full, and I thought to give an end to both (wine and pears) in a pot with spices and sugar.

While the red syrup was boiling, I went out to buy fiordilatte gelato. Another dessert was set, and my pear craving felt finally satisfied.

Pear Almond Bran Muffins

 (yields: 6 muffins):   

  • 1 cup oat flour 
  • 1/2 cup wheat bran  
  • 1/2 T baking powder 
  • 1 tsp baking soda   
  • 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon  
  • 1/2 cup chopped almonds (optional)   
  • 1/2 cup unpeeled, grated pears 
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed (I used muscovado)  
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk   
  • 1 T water   
  • 2 tsp apple vinegar 
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract 
  • 2 T olive oil 

Preheat oven to 400F and grease a muffin tin. In a large bowl combine together flour, bran, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, almonds and grated pears. In a small bowl, whisk together buttermilk, water, vinegar, vanilla extract and oil, then dissolve the brown sugar in this mixture using a fork. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, stirring just until moistened. Do not over mix. Spoon the batter in each muffin cup to the top. Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Leave in the tin for 10 minutes, then cool completely on a rack. 

Pear and Star Anise Jam

  • 1 kg pears, unpeeled and chooped
  • 1/2 kg raw brown sugar
  • 1 bag fruttapec (pectine)
  • 1:2 (1 part sugar : 2 parts fruit)
  • 2 T star anise
  • 3 T lemon juice

In a large bowl, mix pears, sugar, star anise, pectine and lemon juice. Leave for 15-20 minutes, then transfer everything on a big saucepan over medium fire and cook, stirring from time to time, until you get a smooth sauce, about 20 minutes. Divide hot jam among sterilized jars, close with lids and let cool upside-down. Store closed in a cool place up to 6 months, or open in the refrigerator up to two weeks.

Spiced Poached Pears in Barbaresco 

(serves 4):

  • 4 pears, peeled
  • 2 liters red wine (I used leftover Barbaresco)
  • 4 T brown sugar
  • 2 sticks cinnamon
  • 1 T star anise

In a saucepan, bring wine with spices and sugar to boiling, then immerse pears and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove pears and reduce the wine to a syrup. Serving suggestion: vanilla bean or fiordilatte ice-cream.

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