Eleven years ago in this last weekend of October we arrived here on the hillside. It was a different place then. The house was damp, with a pink 1980’s bathroom, vinyl floral wallpaper and swirly carpets that hid a whole ecology of rot. It was a farmer’s house, so there were enough practical comforts. An old oil range, so we were warm once it was up and running and uPVC windows which kept out the weather, so we were happy. The house would be fine for a while, the real reason we were here lay beyond its walls and the land beckoned.
Grazed to the buildings by beef cattle, the trees had been cut back hard and the broken hedges were neatly flailed so as not to shade the grass. There were no concessions to anything but utility, but the views rolled on splendidly and without interruption. With the prospect also came exposure and, though we have become used to it now, when the wind blew that first winter, we woke to the house shuddering as if we were on the prow of a ship.
I knew immediately it would be wrong to plant out the view to provide shelter, but alongside the dream of finding this place came the long-term ambition to plant my own orchard. By the time the leaves were off the trees in the hedgerows, it was clear where it might be. Hunkered into the hill beyond the barns and stepping down the slopes in three parts to frame the landscape. I planted that first winter; a plum orchard on the higher ground where the earliest flowering trees would be least likely to catch the frost, West Country apples further down the slope and a group of pears to the west of the barns, where they would bask in sunshine and be afforded shelter from the easterlies.
The old adage goes, “You plant a pear for your grandchildren” and I’m pleased we moved quickly to get the trees in. A decade on and it is interesting to see what we have not had to wait that long to have learned. The pears that have done well in their huddle of shelter have grown into fine young trees, but their fruit is erratic, one year off and maybe another year on. On the fruiting years their habit of dropping all in one go over the course of a week when they are ripe has also proved problematic. The windfalls bruise and ripening is inconsistent in the branches, though the fruit still drops.
The pear trees we trained as espaliers on the south-facing walls of the kitchen garden have proven their worthiness in half the time. A half day applied training the limbs into position in combination with a late summer prune has given us reliable yields and an orderly backdrop. Pears that are ‘on display’ as it were and hanging neatly along branches to bask in sunshine also make better fruit. The fruit is restricted in number by the management of limbs where an unmanaged tree will, more often than not, be burdened with the flux of feast or famine. This year, we had a week of frost when the pears were flowering in April which saw all the blossom in the orchard trees lost, but we were able to fleece the trees on the protected walls.
We have four varieties, starting with ‘Beth’ in early August and they neatly hand over one to the other, ‘Beurré Hardy’, ‘Williams’ and the last and the best of them all, the delectable ‘Doyenné du Comice’. Doyenné (meaning ‘flavoured one’) was a mark of distinction when the first pear bearing the name, ‘Doyenné Blanc’ emerged in 1652. Several were to follow, but ‘Doyenné du Comice’ (1852) or the Comice Pear has been the most enduring. And with good reason, for the pear is of superlative flavour. In Joan Morgan’s excellent ‘The Book of Pears; The Definitive History and Guide to over 500 varieties’, she describes them thus: ‘Handsome, generous appearance with rich, luscious, very buttery, exquisitely textured, juicy pale cream flesh; sugary sweet yet intense lemony undertones, developing hints of vanilla and almonds’.
Of the four varieties on the kitchen garden wall ‘Doyenné du Comice’ is the lightest cropper, a four-tier cordon produces 15 to 20 fruit a year. You might think this would be enough, but they are so very good that, to mark our marriage five years ago, we planted two more cordons on the front of the house, where each new set of limbs marks time and increases our harvest.
During the last couple of weeks we have been watching keenly, but the last week of October, our moving-in week, seems to be the perfect time to harvest. Pears should be picked and ripened inside on a cool shelf for the best results. Cup the fruit gently in your hand, lift and gently twist a quarter turn. The stalk yields to the turn when it is ready and the fruit can be left in-situ if not. Make sure to check daily, because a fallen fruit will be nibbled and ruined overnight by mice. They also know of their charms, but do not wait for the fruit to fully ripen.
Jane Grigson writes beautifully about pears and, most notably that ‘the old legend that towards the end it may be necessary to get up at 3 a.m. to find absolute perfection is not a great exaggeration.’ Test for ripeness by applying gentle pressure at the neck with your thumb. If it is hard still, be patient, but as soon as the flesh begins to give, the fruit should be eaten, preferably with the skin so that the melt has some structure as contrast. Either alone or with cheese, a fine combination. A perfect fruit will be as good as a warm fig picked fresh off the tree in Greece. A delectable reward with the sun and summer goodness melting in your mouth as we slide into the dark weeks ahead.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 30 October 2021