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.