Succulent, juicy and tender with a slightly granular flesh; pears are delicious when perfectly ripe. I love pears and for me a poached pear is an ultimate pudding indulgence. Not only are pears delicious to eat, but they also boast a long culinary and literary history as well as being esteemed by the likes of Culpepper and Pliny.
It is believed that pears were first cultivated in Britain during the Roman occupation and although the fruit was slow to develop, pear trees are mentioned as boundary markers in the Doomsday Book. By the thirteenth century many varieties of pear had been imported from France with the fruit being used for cooking rather than eating raw.
Many of these original varieties of pear gradually fell from popularity, but one that is currently being revived and that has captured my taste buds is the Warden pear. In its day it became famous for its use in pies, so what’s not to like? The variety is mentioned in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” and the Michaelmas Fair at Bedford was renowned for baked Warden’s and this hard type of pear which has to be cooked before eating, is thought to have been first cultivated by monks at the Cistercian Abbey near the village of Old Warden around the 13th century.
From first reading the lines ‘I must have saffron to colour the warden pies’ in The Winter’s Tale, these spiced pear pies captured my culinary imagination. As a food historian I must confess to being excited at the prospect of creating a food of literary and culinary importance that featured not only in the Bards work, but in the Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends where the hot baked wardens are a tempting cry:
“The Canon sighed,
But rousing cried,
I answer to their call,
And a Warden’s pie’s a dainty
Dish to mortify withall”
The baked pear vendor had a cry
Who knows what I’ve got
In my pot? Hot baked wardens
All hot! All hot! All hot! ‘’
The pears were also part of English troops’ provisions during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. With such a rich culinary history I couldn’t wait to get cooking with this deeply coloured, cooking pear, but getting hold of them was not as straightforward as popping to the local greengrocers as the Warden Pear began to decline in popularity in the 1800’s, as other more versatile, eating varieties took over. There are now believed to be just five trees producing the fruit left in the area of Warden, Bedfordshire. Thankfully staff and students at the local college are trying to propagate new trees through grafting. Paul Labous, a lecturer in horticulture at Shuttleworth college kindly sent me some pears and I have to say that I was not only grateful to him, but excited beyond compare when they finally arrived a firm pear with a deep colour certainly was a delight for the eyes and I must say that I wasn’t disappointed with the results for once cooked, for the Warden Pear has a strong, rich flavour and great texture. Although when it came to prepping the Wardens I came to understand why they were known as the iron pear for it is a tough pear to peel and hard work to cut, however once cooked its lovely texture, taste and its ability to keep its shape during cooking make it well worth the effort.
A Taste of Shakespeare’s England: Warden Pie Recipe – Original Recipe
To make a Tarte of Wardens. You must bake your Wardens first in a Pie, and then take all the wardens and cut them in foure quarters, and coare them, and put them into a Tarte pinched, with your Suger, and season them with Suger, Synamon and Ginger, and set them in the Ouen, and put no couer on them, but you must cutte a couer and laye in the Tart when it is baked, and butter the Tarte and the couer too, and endore it with suger.
The Good Huswifes Jewell, 1596
I wanted to create a Warden Pie that was not just a straight forward redaction of the old recipes I had researched, but also reminiscent of the one the Clown had described in Shakespeare’s, ‘The Winter’s Tale’, with saffron for colouring. I decided that it would be the pastry that would be coloured with saffron rather than the filling and I couldn’t resist adding a bit of wine to my recipe.
90g unsalted butter, softened
65g caster sugar
3 free-range egg yolks
200g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
10 strands of saffron
Cream the butter, saffron and sugar together in a bowl until well mixed, then beat in the egg yolks, one at a time until fully combined. Now gradually stir in the flour until the mixture comes together as a ball of dough.
Turn the pastry out onto a floured work surface and knead briefly until smooth and pliable. Once the pastry is ready wrap it in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes.
Once the pastry is chilled, roll out and line a deep pie dish, reserving enough for a lid and decorations.
Pears (ideally 4 medium sized wardens, otherwise 4 firm pears)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
500ml full-bodied red wine (a great excuse for drinking the other half of the bottle!)
100g granulated sugar
¼ tsp ground cloves
Peel and core the pears. Parboil them for 5 minutes. Allow to cool, before setting them into the pie shell.
In a medium pan combine the wine, spices and sugar and place on a high heat, stir continuously until the sugar is dissolved and bring to a boil, then simmer for two minutes or until a thick syrup develops. Pour the syrup over the pears and cover the pie with a pastry lid.
Bake in a moderate oven, 80–190°C (350–375°F) for 45 minutes.
Tip: The saffron in the pastry gives a deep colour avoid egg washing the pastry until the last 10 minutes of cooking to avoid over colouring.
Serve with lashings of creamy custard or a good vanilla ice cream.
Perfect Poached Pears
Imbued with a vibrant pink colour from the wine, my modern recipe is inspired by medieval recipes and produces a delicious dessert with a soft, warm texture. The taste is reminiscent of mulled wine and I when preparing this dish I often find myself reciting the passage, “The war had not touched the fabled bounty of Highgarden. While singers sang and tumblers tumbled, they began with pears poached in wine…” -A Clash of Kings. This is most certainly a pudding that offers a taste of history and that will transport your mind to a seat at a long trestle table in a grand feasting hall.
750ml bottle red wine
200g golden caster sugar
2 cinnamon sticks, snapped in half
6 whole cloves
3 blades of mace
4 firm pears, peeled
Pour the wine, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and mace into a deep pan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Add the pears, making sure they are fully covered by the wine, then simmer for 30 mins until they are just tender. If using Warden pears this process can take up to 40 minutes.
Top Tip: This recipe can be made up to 2 days ahead – simply leave the pears in the syrup in the fridge until you’re ready to finish the recipe.
Once tender remove the pears from the pan with a slotted spoon and boil the syrup for 30 mins to reduce it and create a jewel like syrup. Serve the pears chilled with a pool of syrup and some clotted cream if feeling naughty.
How to bake Wardens
Original Receipt in ‘A book of cookrye. Very necessary for all such as delight therin’, (AW 1591);
Core your wardens and pare them, and perboyle them and laye them in your paste, and put in every warden where you take out the Core a Clove or twain, put to them Sugar, Ginger, Sinamon, more sinamon then ginger, make your crust very fine and somewhat thick, and bake them leisurely.
Modern Recipe for Baked Pears
4 firm fresh pears (preferably Warden)
250 ml red wine
50 g soft brown sugar
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1⁄4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 pinch saffron
Peel the pears, but leave them whole with the stem intact, then place them in an oven-proof dish.
Mix together the sugar, wine and spices and heat in a saucepan until the sugar has dissolved before pouring over the pears.
Place in a moderate oven and bake until tender, for 20 to 30 minutes.
Serve them with the infused wine syrup and hot custard or cream.
Whilst gorging on Warden Pie and poached pears slathered in lashings of cream, you may want to reflect on the health giving properties of pears for they are an excellent source of vitamin C and vitamin E as well as being high in fibre. They also have anti-oxidant and anti-carcinogen glutathione which helps to prevent high blood pressure and strokes. Well as pears are so healthy I can’t help thinking I should boost my vigour by eating another baked Warden, purely for medicinal purposes of course!