by Gina DePalma, Pastry Chef Emeritus
Pear trees enjoy a long history in Italy, first cultivated on Italian soil by the Romans and gracing the orchards of nobles and holy men with their delicate blossoms and large, juicy fruit for centuries thereafter. In Mantova, which lies along the upper Po River Valley, pears have been grown with great care and attention since the Middle Ages, when over 200 varieties of pears were known to be in existence! (The Benedictine monks of the Monastery of San Benedetto have tended their pear trees for centuries, a bit of history that remains alive to this very day.)
Naturally, Mantovans kept their treasures to themselves, and their succulent pere were harvested exclusively for local consumption. But as the technology for growing, storing and distributing fruits and vegetables expanded throughout the 20th Century, so did the spread of Pere Mantovane to the rest of Italy and eventually, the world. In 1998, the EU bestowed upon them the coveted IGP status. “Indicazione Geografica Protetta” is a designation approved in 1992 under the adoption of the European Union, applied to agricultural produce of exceptionally high reputation and distinction relative to its particular geographical origin. Foods that are designated as IGP, are strictly controlled in terms of their production, processing and distribution.
Today, Italy ranks as the world’s greatest producer of European pears (as opposed to Asian varieties); both growing and consuming more pears than any other nation. The varieties of Pere Montavane include William and William Rossa, Conference, Decana de Comizio, Abate Fetel and Kaiser.
Pears contradict nearly everything we know about ripening fruit. Most stone and citrus fruits must be left on the tree to ripen fully and develop the best texture and taste. Pears, on the other hand, should be picked immature and allowed to ripen while in storage. Tree-ripened pears are mushy, while those ripened off the tree will become succulent and sweet.
Pears are our nutritional buddies for many reasons. They are rich in fiber and Vitamin C, which is highly concentrated in the skin, as well as phosphorus, potassium and folic acid. A dieter’s dream, they are relatively low in calories when compared to other fruits, and have natural diuretic properties. From a cook’s standpoint, pears are endlessly versatile. They are a key ingredient in the zesty-sweet Mostarda of neighboring Cremona. When raw, they are wonderful in salads or with cheese; when cooked, they can be enjoyed in tarts and cakes, or simply poached and served with other dessert components, such as sweetened mascarpone cream, zabaglione, or ice cream.
Many people enjoy pears poached in red wine, but I prefer using lighter white wines; the pears seem to glow with a translucent golden brilliance. The pears should be tender, but still firm enough to preserve that grainy-juicy texture. I like to keep the flavors simple – just a bit of vanilla and some lemon zest enhance, rather than mask their flavor, and since pears are so naturally sweet, I do not use very much sugar. By dialing the sweetness of poached pears down a notch or two, I find that they are a fabulous accompaniment to cheese, even more so than raw pears. There is something about the texture of a gently poached pear that partners so fantastically with cheeses from Italy, and in particular, Lombardia. These include Bitto, Gorganzola, Taleggio, Valtellina, Grana Padano, and of course, Parmigiano Reggiano – all are DOP cheeses of Lombardia that will pair beautifully with your perfectly poached pears.