Since I’ve never had a garden with a bountiful fall crop, and have only rarely ventured into the time honoured rituals of canning and preserving, my short list of autumn “harvest” activities is, well, pretty short.
There’s wine making (thanks to marrying a man with Italian heritage); and grape jelly making (when we finally grew enough of our own grapes); salmon canning with a borrowed canner for a terrifying couple of years (these made great Christmas gifts, though I worried more than a little about poisoning my family); garlic planting; and then, there’s the annual tradition of making pear syrup.
Pear syrup is a nectar of the gods that I had never heard of until I married into a family where pear syrup was a treasured family recipe. I immediately fell in love with my mother-in-law’s rendition, decadent and delicious on pancakes.
So, years ago, each fall I started looking for windfall pears,….those extras no one cares about that will otherwise rot on the ground….and I found them in a variety of places. People would tell me about old pear trees in a field or in an overgrown farmyard, or in the back of their house, and I would joyfully collect pears each year, a box full or more, and bring them home with a certain satisfaction, knowing that nature had once again served up her bounty to me.
For the last several years, a friend who lives on a gorgeous old farm nearby has invited me to come get pears there each October, since she insists she can’t use all of them. I arrived there recently just as the afternoon sun lit up the old apple and pear orchard under a blue sky. A ladder awaited me under the tree, so I even climbed up briefly to pick a few pears right off the branch, heavy and ready to fall. I thoroughly enjoy the gathering in part of the process.
The ritual of making pear syrup involves patience, water, a steamy kitchen, cheesecloth, measuring cups, sugar, a broomstick (for hanging the heavy mash in the cheesecloth over a 5 gallon wine-juice pail), big pots, a stool, a sticky stove, sterilized bottles, a coated spoon, attentiveness, careful watching, and sometimes a good book (to read as you perch on the stool and keep an eye on the bubbling juice/sugar mixture).
There is stress involved too during the process: deciding just when the syrup has been rendered down enough to avoid a finished product that is too thin or too thick. This takes some educated guessing, lots of spoon tests, colour comparisons, and luck. Some years I’m not as lucky as others.
But I like the feeling of knowing that there will be a “pear syrup making day” put aside each fall, guilt-free, when I can partake once more in a ritual that combines usefulness sweetness, and nostalgia.
And oh, the contentment of seeing, at the end of the day, the golden syrup filling the many varied bottles on my counter, ready to be gifted at Christmas, ready to be savoured on Saturday mornings or special occasions, ready to be stored in our back pantry. Is there anything as satisfying as stocking up? Putting away?
Pears have even worked their way into our kitchen motif: paintings, photos, and a wall plaque stating, “Good things come in pears.”
The tradition, over the years, has become part of our family lore and life and part of the rhythm marking the seasons. This year, my daughter may even join me.