To stew pears red

After our quince pye recipe, here’s another way with autumn fruits.

This recipe specifies the use of warden pears, a common name for a varieties of firm-fleshed, sour-tasting pears, which need to be cooked before they can be eaten. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the name may have come from the French verb garder, ‘to keep’ and a quote from Gervase Markham’s manual on farming seems to support this theory:

Your stone-Peare, Warden-Peare, and choake-Peare [are] those which indure longest

The English Husbandman (1613)

However, others believe the name comes from the Bedfordshire village of Old Warden, where a community of monks are said to have cultivated the pears in medieval times.

Traditional varieties of cooking pear include the Black Worcester and the Catillac, but unless you’ve got these trees in your garden or have easy access to a good farmers’ market, you may need to resort to whatever you can find in the supermarket. Bosc pears are meant to be good at holding their shape but slightly under-ripe conference pears should also be a good fall-back.

How to Stew Pears Red

Take a qr of a hundred of warden pears & split them in halves or leave them whole as you like best & throw them in clean cold water as you pair them. Let them lye an hour in it, then stick a clove in every piece & put them in a stew pan with a good deal of water a bout them. Let em boyle a little, then put in a drahm of cutchinele pounded & a bit of allom ye bigness of a wallnut pounded, a stick of cinnamon & some blads of mace. Then let them boyle till very soft but take care doant brake. Take up ye pears & strain ye liquor & put in ye pears a gain & a pound of double refind sugar. Let them boyle quick till ye sirrup is very rich. Serve them hot or cold.

"How to stew pears red": a recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

“How to stew pears red”: a recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

The red colouring for this recipe comes from pounded ‘cutchinele’ (cochineal), tiny insects from Central America. The egg yolks and dried bodies of the females yield a bright red dye, also known as carmine. If the idea of crushed cochineal bugs makes you squeamish, most supermarkets offer synthetic food colourings which would also do the trick.

The alum (‘allom’) in this recipe is a chemical compound, and it is still used today as preservative, notably in pickles. A lot of 18th century bread also included alum to keep it white and fresh. Alum powder can be bought from many Indian groceries, but the sugar content in the syrup alone should help to preserve the pears for a little while.