Ornamental Separator

Pear Fanfare

Today’s varieties belie the fruit’s fussy reputation in the 18th century

As with many foods in 18th-century Virginia, pears were found mainly in the exclusive gardens of gentry homes because of the difficulty in growing them.

“Pears grow well from seeds, but don’t produce good trees,” said Eve Otmar, journeyman supervisor at the Colonial Garden and Farm. “They had to be grafted, which requires a specific skill that not everyone possessed.”

The facts that Tidewater Virginia’s climate was generally too hot to grow English pears and that the fruit was prone to blight added to the frustrations.

So the list of the elite who had pears growing in their orchards isn’t surprising.

George Washington was familiar with pears. In a March 15, 1795, letter to his overseer at Mount Vernon, Washington included a postscript that he was sending him “a small paper bundle of Pair graffs of an extraordinary fine kind wch [I] desire the Gardener to be particular attentive to.”

Thomas Jefferson grew the Seckel pear in his Monticello orchard, saying the fruit “exceeded anything I have tasted since I left France & equalled any pear I had seen there.”

In his diary, William Byrd noted numerous times during July 1710, “I said my prayers and ate milk and pears for breakfast.”

St. George Tucker planted orchards at Matoax, the Chesterfield County, Virginia, plantation where he lived after marrying Frances Bland Randolph, and in Williamsburg, where he returned after her death. His writings indicate that pears were planted at both properties.

Frank Clark, the master of Historic Foodways, noted the varieties of pears today are quite different from the pears available in the 18th century. "Few, if any, varieties from the colonial period survive today," he said.

In her recipes for stewing pears, Hannah Glasse uses “a pennyworth of cochineal” to create a rich red color. “Cochineal is the shell of a beetle, which contains a natural dye called carmine,” Clark explained. “It’s perfectly healthy and still used today.”

Don’t worry: The adapted version of the recipe shared here calls for red wine.

To Stew Pears Purple

Historic Foodways

Adapted from The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse (London, 1788; originally published 1747)
Serves 6–8

3 pears
8 cloves
1 lemon peel, no pith
1–2 cups red wine (enough to cover the pears)
1/2 cup sugar, or more to your taste

  1. Peel the pears. Choose one to be the centerpiece. If slightly lopsided, it can be trimmed on the bottom to be more vertical.
  2. Quarter and core the remaining pears. If the pears are large, cut them into eighths.
  3. Put all the pears into the smallest saucepan that will hold them. Add the cloves, lemon peel, red wine and sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium heat; then reduce the heat to a low or warm setting. Every few minutes, move the whole pear around to completely cover it with the wine mixture.
  4. Cook until the pears are a deep purple and allow them to sit for several minutes for wine mixture to be totally absorbed.
  5. Arrange on a plate in a sunburst pattern with the whole pear in the center.

Executive Chef Travis Brust remembers the beautiful boxes of perfect pears that arrived from faraway fruit companies at Christmastime. “My brother and I would dive into those pears before they were ripe, they tasted so good to us,” he recalled. Brust remembers his mother putting pears into their school lunches.

To choose good pears in the grocery store, “select firm and barely ripe or underripe fruit with almost no give,” Brust said. “You should just be able to detect the pear scent.” Unlike apples, which become grainier the longer they sit on the kitchen counter, pears become juicier with a few days at room temperature.

Brust recommends trying Seckel pears, Forelle pears or French butter pears when you can find them in addition to the more common Bartlett, Bosc and Anjou pears.

Though Brust’s recipe has many steps, it is not difficult, and the ingredients are readily available. “The result is well worth the effort,” he added.

Pear Frangipane Tart

Williamsburg Inn


For the poached pears:
3 large pears, preferably Bartlett, Bosc or Anjou
1 750 ml bottle Moscato wine
3 cups water
4 cinnamon sticks
2 bay leaves, fresh or dry
2 lemons, zested and juiced (zest will be used for the crust and the filling)

  1. Peel each pear and use a small melon baller to scoop out the core from the bottom. Leave the top and stem intact.
  2. In a small soup pot over medium heat, bring to a simmer the wine, water, cinnamon, bay leaves and lemon juice.
  3. Add the pears.
  4. Stirring occasionally, simmer for 15 minutes; remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature with the pears still submerged in the liquid.
  5. Remove the cooled pears from the liquid and set aside.

For the crust:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest
11 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced into small cubes and chilled
1 egg yolk from a large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
  2. Butter the bottom and side of a 10-inch tart pan.
  3. Place the flour, sugar, salt and lemon zest in a food processor and pulse a few times to mix.
  4. Add the chilled cubes of butter and pulse a few times to cut and evenly distribute the butter.
  5. Add the egg yolk and vanilla extract, and pulse the processor until the dough forms large chunks.
  6. Place the dough on a clean surface and lightly knead until it comes together. Do not overmix.
  7. Press the dough into the tart pan until an even 1/4-inch layer covers the bottom and side.
  8. Butter a piece of foil and place it, butter side down, over the dough in the tart pan and fill it with baking beads, weights or dry beans.
  9. Bake the shell for 20 minutes, remove the foil and weights and bake an additional 10 minutes.
  10. Remove from the oven and cool completely, leaving the crust in the pan.

For the frangipane filling:
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup almond flour
3 large eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon dark rum

  1. Combine the butter and sugar in a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat at medium speed until light and fluffy.
  2. Change to low speed and alternately add the almond flour and eggs in three batches to combine.
  3. Add the almond extract, lemon zest and rum, and mix until just combined.

Final assembly:

  1. Cut the pears in half and remove the stems. Cut the pears from top to bottom into 1/4-inch slices so they can be fanned for presentation. (If you are not comfortable with this step, the pears can be left as halves.)
  2. Pour the frangipane filling into the baked tart shell and spread evenly.
  3. Place the sliced, fanned pear halves in a star pattern with the tops of the pears in the center and fanning the bottoms toward the side of the tart shell.
  4. Place the tart in a 375 F oven for 40–50 minutes or until the fran-gipane filling has risen around the sides of the pears and the filling has browned to a deep golden color.
  5. Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature before removing from the tart pan.
  6. Cut the tart into 6–8 portions. The tart can be served with a dollop of whipped cream and a dusting of powdered sugar.

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