Faster than the Speed of a Poached Pear

The news that sci­ent­ists have recor­ded sub­atomic particles trav­el­ling faster than the speed of light has been greeted with aston­ish­ment. I’m no doubt miss­ing out a mil­lion links in the sci­entific chain here, but in its simplest form it shoots craters into Albert Einstein’s sac­red prin­ciple that noth­ing travels faster than light. It might be pos­sible to watch these particles, known as neut­ri­nos, leav­ing after they’ve arrived in the place where we’ve already seen them. Roughly trans­lated, it raises the pos­sib­il­ity of going back­wards in time.

Time travel is some­thing cooks have been able to do for gen­er­a­tions of course. Noth­ing will trans­port you back to a moment in your child­hood, a summer’s day or a per­fect birth­day, like the taste and aroma of the food that you ate at those golden moments.

Without fail, the sight of a poached pear takes me back to Italy circa 1991. A softly spoken, eld­erly chef called Benito told me that the only way to check if a poached pear is per­fectly cooked is to pierce it with the quill of a wild Umbrian por­cu­pine. To make sure that I’d always cook per­fect pears in future, he gave me a quill as a present. (Benito didn’t speak a single word of Eng­lish, so it’s per­fectly pos­sible that I com­pletely mis­un­der­stood him and that what he was really say­ing was that the sharp point of a por­cu­pine quill is the per­fect weapon to attack people steal­ing pears from your tree.)

This morn­ing, I was trans­por­ted back to my con­ver­sa­tion with Benito when I found some beau­ti­ful Con­corde pears at the market.

So, com­pletely unaided and without a single neut­rino in sight, I take you back 20 years. Until neut­ri­nos really prove their stuff, this is the finest time travel I know — the culin­ary kind.


Serves 4

For the Poached Pears

  • 4 ripe, firm pears such as concorde
  • 300ml red wine
  • 100ml water
  • 1 cin­na­mon stick
  • 1 star anise
  • 80g caster sugar

Peel the pears, slice a piece off the bot­tom so they will stand up straight once cooked, Remove the core from under­neath, or leave it in if you prefer. Com­bine all the other ingredi­ents in a pan, heat until the sugar is dis­solved and then add the peeled pears. Make a car­touche out of greaseproof paper. This is simply a circle of paper the same dia­meter as the pan with a small circle cut out of the middle to allow steam to escape. Press the car­touche onto the pears to keep them in the liquid as they cook. Sim­mer gently for around an hour, until the point of a knife, or a por­cu­pine quill of course, slides in eas­ily. Allow the pears to cool in the poach­ing liquid. When the pears are cool, remove them from the liquid. Reduce the liquid to a rich syrup.

For the Pear Crisps

  • I pear
  • 25g caster sugar
  • 1 table­spoon lemon juice
  • 100ml water

Heat the oven to 110 degrees C. Boil the water, pour into a bowl and add the sugar and lemon juice. Stir until dis­solved. Slice the pear finely using a man­dolin if you have one, or a very sharp knife. Dip the slices in the sugar water. Bake in the oven on a tray lined with bak­ing paper for around 1.5 hours, until the slices are dried out, but not yet brown.

For the But­ter­scotch Ice-Cream


  • 225g unsalted butter
  • 170g brown sugar
  • 50ml water
  • Pinch of salt
  • 150ml cream
  • 225g cream
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 475g semi skimmed milk
  • 8 egg yolks

First make the but­ter­scotch, by com­bin­ing the but­ter, sugar, salt and water. Sim­mer for 15 minutes, until the col­our darkens to a pale car­a­mel brown. Keep stir­ring so that it doesn’t burn. Take off the heat and stir in the cream. It will bubble and churn up. Put to one side to cool.

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until they become pale, creamy and form trails when you lift the whisk and let the mix­ture drip into the bowl. This is called the ‘rib­bon stage’. Com­bine the cream and milk and bring almost to the boil.

Whisk a spoon­ful of the cream mix­ture into the egg and then trans­fer the egg mix­ture into the pan of cream. Keep whisk­ing con­stantly to avoid it turn­ing to scrambled eggs. Con­tinue to heat gently and when the cus­tard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. sieve the mix­ture onto the but­ter­scotch, stir well and pour into a chilled bowl to cool down. Once cold, churn in an ice-cream maker.

Assemble the pear, crisp, ice-cream and syrup. While you eat, spec­u­late about the pos­sib­il­ity of eat­ing poached pears which haven’t been made yet. That way you get to eat them before the washing-up even exists.


Remembered But Not Witnessed… Pan-Roasted Chicken With Pears, Hazelnuts And Apple Brandy

If I was to choose a flower that per­fectly evokes the past, I would pick the mocked and reviled dah­lia. It’s so ridicu­lously, frothily retro and has been out of fash­ion for so long. And yet dog­gedly and resi­li­ently it’s hung on in the shad­ows, wait­ing for its chance to creep back onto the stage. This year I’ve grown dah­lias for the first time — if truth be told, they pretty much grew them­selves, actu­ally. And look how beau­ti­ful they are — like mini­ature wed­ding hats from the 1950s.

In Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-nominated novel The Sense of an End­ing, we’re warned that ‘what you end up remem­ber­ing isn’t always the same as what you have wit­nessed.’ I thought of that phrase when buy­ing a birth­day card for a friend, to go with the dah­lias. I found one in an antiques shop in Oxford; clipped to its front is an old black and white pho­to­graph that must have been taken eighty years ago. I’d like to think the pic­ture was taken on the couple’s hon­ey­moon, but since I neither remem­ber not wit­nessed, it’s impossible to be sure. And yet there they are, trapped on a card, with a frag­ment of rib­bon, some shreds of ini­tialled tape and a large black but­ton; a whole new present tense cre­ated out of their past. I hope they’d be pleased.

I thought again of the past in cre­at­ing this recipe. It’s a re-imagining of the dish I always chose as a child from the menu of a small candle-lit bis­tro on the south coast of Eng­land. I have no idea how they made it, but I thought it was the height of soph­ist­ic­a­tion. This is what I remem­ber, even if it’s not what I wit­nessed. But, like the card, I’ve made a new present tense out of the past.

Pan-Roasted Chicken With Pears, Hazel­nuts and Apple Brandy

Serves 4

  • 4 chicken breasts, skin on
  • 1 table­spoon olive oil
  • 2 ripe, firm pears such as Comice, cored, peeled, quartered and cut into slices 1–2 mm thick
  • 1 knob butter
  • 1/4 cup Cal­va­dos — brandy will do if you can’t find Calvados
  • 100 g blanched hazel­nuts, toasted until light brown in a dry fry­ing pan and then crushed
  • 200 g creme fraiche
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • salt and black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C.

Heat the olive oil in a fry­ing pan until very hot and start­ing to smoke. Place the chicken breasts, skin-side down in the pan and leave for 4 minutes without mov­ing them at all — don’t be temp­ted to turn them over. Remove the chicken to an oven-proof dish and, still skin-side down, place in the pre­heated oven for 9 to 10 minutes until cooked through. Remove from the oven and rest the chicken, before sli­cing each piece into 4. Reserve the unwashed fry­ing pan for the sauce.

Return the unwashed fry­ing pan to the heat and once hot again, add the brandy. Stir to deglaze the pan and to let the alco­hol evap­or­ate. After three minutes, add the knob of but­ter and once it has melted, add the sliced pears. Bubble in the pan for 5 minutes until very slightly brown at the edges. Add the crushed hazel­nuts and stir gently for a fur­ther 3 minutes. Add the creme fraiche, stir in, and then add the white wine, plus plenty of salt and black pep­per. Cook for a fur­ther 5 minutes or until the pears are soft. Check the season­ing and then spoon the sauce around the chicken. Serve with mashed pota­toes and cavolo nero cabbage.

I served the chicken-I-remember-but-may-not-have-witnessed, on the clock plates given to me thirty years ago by a great friend called Brian. He died a long time ago, but I love using his plates — the per­fect way to think of the past while watch­ing the long hand of the clock tick around the rim.

Pecan Pear Pain Perdu

When I was a break­fast TV reporter my pro­du­cer Brian, who longed to make art­house films, used to groan that we were being forced to explore ‘the u-bend of Brit­ish tele­vi­sion’. He said we’d plumbed new depths the morn­ing I did a live para­chute jump strapped into the same suit as a mem­ber of the Red Dev­ils sky-diving team.

I thought of Brian today when I dis­covered the truly awful nov­els of Amanda McKit­trick Ros. Born in 1860 and a shock­ing social climber, she thor­oughly deserves her title ‘the best worst nov­el­ist ever’. Brian would have wept if he’d ever read this: ‘The liv­ing some­times learn the touchy tricks of the traitor, the tardy and the temp­ted; the dead have evaded the flighty earthly future, and form to swell the ret­inue of retired rights, the right­eous school of the invis­ible and the rebel­li­ous roar of the raging noth­ing.’ It’s no won­der that J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis used to read her work aloud to each other to see who would col­lapse into giggles first.

Miss McKit­trick Ros was clearly addicted to the school­girl art of allit­er­a­tion so I have a feel­ing she would have adored my Pecan Pear Pain Perdu. Since it’s Valentine’s Day any moment, I’ve pro­duced a heart-shaped Pecan Pear Pain Perdu. But feel free to dump the soppy hearts if you’re not in the mood.

Pecan Pear Pain Perdu

For two people

2 pears

1 large egg

100ml milk

4 tea­spoons caster sugar

2 thick slices stale white bread — hence the term ‘perdu’ or ‘lost’. The slices can be no-nonsense oblongs or you can snip them with scis­sors into hearts — whichever shape matches your sens­ib­il­it­ies or the state of your love life.

80g but­ter

Hand­ful pecan nuts

Halve the pears, peel and core them and then cut length­ways into 1mm thin slices. Put to one side. Break the egg into a shal­low bowl, whisk with a fork and add 2 tea­spoons of sugar and the milk. Dip the bread slices into the egg mix­ture, turn­ing over to coat each side. Melt approx­im­ately 40g of but­ter in a fry­ing pan over a medium heat. When hot and frothy, add the bread and fry for a couple of minutes on both sides until golden brown. Put each slice on a plate.

Wipe the fry­ing pan with kit­chen paper and then melt the remain­ing 40g of but­ter over a medium heat, along with the rest of the sugar. Stir until dis­solved and then add the pear slices and the pecan nuts. Cook gently for 4 or 5 minutes until the pears are soft and golden and the nuts are well coated. Arrange the pears and nuts art­fully over the bread.

Serve with creme fraiche and eat while read­ing Amanda McKit­trick Ros aloud to your part­ner and star­ing into his or her ‘globes of glare’ — McKit­trick Ros’ truly hideous term for eyes. Make sure you’re wear­ing sexy ‘south­ern neces­sar­ies’ — her term for knick­ers — and don’t, for good­ness sake, break into ‘glob­ules of liquid lava’ — that’s sweat darling, sweat.

A windfall…

I used to rent a house in Oxford with an old pear tree in the garden. The tree was tall and planted on uneven ground at the back of a herb­aceous bor­der. Pick­ing from the tree was haz­ard­ous, involving a lad­der, deep breaths and plenty of dar­ing. After a couple of sea­sons I decided the best way to enjoy the fruit was to wait for them to come to me. Whenever I heard a rustle and a thud I’d rum­mage in the under­growth to see if there was enough for supper.

I vis­ited Prince Charles’ gar­dens at High­grove this week as part of a char­ity fun­draiser. It was hard to ima­gine, look­ing at the per­fec­tion of his apple trees, that any of them would have the temer­ity to release their fruit until told to do so. The regi­ment of trees, each framed at the base in a per­fectly square bed of lav­ender, was loaded with immacu­late, unblem­ished green apples. And there wasn’t a wind­fall to be seen. The trees were mag­ni­fi­cent, but they made me think nos­tal­gic­ally of my dis­obedi­ent and unruly pear tree that offered up its fruit so nois­ily and chaotically.

The fol­low­ing day I vis­ited my old house, now lived in by a great friend. We searched the under­growth for enough of the slightly wonky and bruised fruit to make baked pears with. A wind­fall in both senses of the word.

Baked Pears With Hazel­nut Brittle

Enough for 4

For the brittle:

5 table­spoons caster sugar

1 table­spoon water

50 grams roas­ted chopped hazelnuts

For the pears:

4 pears

4 table­spoons caster sugar

4 table­spoons sweet dessert wine

40 grams but­ter

Pre­heat the oven to 175 degrees C.

Make the brittle by stir­ring the sugar and water together in a sauce­pan over a mod­er­ate heat until the sugar dis­solves. Raise the heat and con­tinue to stir until the syrup turns to car­a­mel. Be care­ful you don’t let it get too dark, because it will taste bit­ter. Stir in the nuts and spread the tof­fee mix­ture out on a piece of bak­ing paper — it will be scorch­ing hot so don’t be temp­ted to touch it yet. Let it cool while you make the pears.

Peel the pears and put them in a dish with the sugar, wine and but­ter. Bake for around 50 minutes until the pears are soft and slightly car­a­mel­ized. Check on them three or four times to see they don’t burn and each time spoon the juice over the top of the fruit. Snap the brittle into shards and eat with the pears and the juice.

You may know that I have a thing about eat­ing out­side, whatever the weather. I have two loyal and long-suffering friends who always wear vests when they come to visit. But even the most reluct­ant among you would have enjoyed eat­ing those pears with me. As I walked out­side a rain­bow appeared in the sky. Even Prince Charles can’t order one of those.…

Polenta and pear crossover deluxe

Lemon polenta cake means it’s birth­day time in our house. A sack of polenta has a solid heft; plump, sturdy and chirpily yel­low. You could have a good pil­low fight with a bag of polenta.

But, birth­days aside, some­times a pud­ding is what you need. So this is my polenta cake/pear pud­ding cros­sover deluxe.

I’ve adap­ted the base of this recipe from the River Cafe’s lemon polenta cake. The ori­ginal is a vast, deli­cious mat­tress of a cake; my ver­sion is less of a duvet, more of a blanket.

225g but­ter (If it’s unsalted, add a pinch of salt. If your but­ter is slightly salted, which mine always is, just omit the pinch)

225g vanilla sugar

225g ground almonds

2 tea­spoons vanilla extract

3 eggs

Juice of 1 lemon

Zest of 2 lemons

115g polenta

1 tea­spoon bak­ing powder

Mix the but­ter and sugar thor­oughly together. Stir in the almonds and vanilla extract and add the eggs, one at a time. Fold in the lemon juice and zest, along with the polenta and the bak­ing powder. Pour the mix­ture into a buttered flan dish, about 10 inches in dia­meter. Peel, core and thinly slice the pears.

Poke the slices of pear into the polenta mix­ture, in two con­cent­ric circles.

Bake at 160 degrees C for about thirty minutes. The top should be a rich dark brown and the pears soft.

Enjoy for break­fast, lunch and tea — if you’re lucky, all on the same day.