Drinking in the Season: Pear Brandy
I am unabashed in my passionate pursuit of perfection as I thump on the swollen bellies of watermelons, delicately squeeze my way through an artful display of peaches—still blushing from the heat—and ri e through the bags of grapes searching among the violet-hued gems for only the plumpest and sweetest of the lot. Certain I can’t be alone in my endeavors, I quickly scan the market, but aside from a red-headed woman elbow deep in a bounty of late summer tomatoes, the other shoppers are oblivious to the botanical wonders that lie within reach.
Hoarded by emperors and kings, fruit has sparked wars, innovation and art. Helen of Troy allegedly ignited the Trojan War by seeing to it that Aphrodite’s prize for winning a beauty contest was a single quince. Let us not forget, either, that the same rosy-red apple that enlightened Sir Isaac Newton on gravity also captivated Neruda’s imagination as he waxed poetic on its beauty. And, while science long ago proved that fruit is rich in antioxidants and possesses many medicinal bene ts, aside from its aesthetics, we’re most likely drawn to its exotic flavors and intoxicating sweetness. Though fruit has been cultivated for centuries and perfected by many—think Rudolph Hass’s avocado, Frank Meyer’s lemon and Luther Burbank’s Santa Rosa plum—we’ve never tired of trying to capture the ephemeral nature of fruit harvested at the peak of its perfection, plucked clean from the branch and still warm from the sun.
The Alsatians have nearly mastered this art and it’s from this picturesque region of France that we nd the bracingly brisk tonics known as eau de vie—translated water of life. In the hands of expert craftsmen, these distillations embody the essence of the fruit—as if the fruit itself had been captured and preserved within the bottle. Once uncorked, its sweet seductive perfume is set free to ll the air and tempt the senses.
Popular varieties of eau de vie include mirabelle, made from blush-colored pink plums; framboise, redolent with ripe raspberries; and, of course, poire eau de vie, brimming with the floral and vanilla aroma of summer pears. the latter is closely akin to the famous Poire William, a pear brandy made from the Williamine pear, or summer Bartlett, and most easily recognized by the full-grown pear imprisoned within its bottle.
Many tourists traveling through the region have been dumbfounded by the pear perfectly encased in the bottle, even falling for farfetched explanations such as the glass being blown around the pear before flling the bottle with the brandy, removable bottle bottoms, and even sleight of hand tricks, including rubber pears. The trick, however, is no trick at all. The pears are grown in the bottles. Once the tree flowers, the best blossoms are selected and the bottles slipped onto the branches and tied on with string. It may seem a marketing tactic, but the practice is an age-old one of preserving fruit through the process of fermentation and the resulting brandy, an exceptional way to take the chill on a cold day.
The origin of the Williamine pear isn’t fully known, but it’s believed that the variety was first discovered in the yard of an English schoolmaster by his nurseryman, Williams. the pear was then dubbed Williams’ Good Christian. Later, when the wealthy English transplant Enoch Bartlett bought an estate in Massachusetts, he brought the pear with him and changed its name to the Bartlett pear. Not only do summer pears ripen well before their winter counterparts, but they represent the last of fleeting summer days: skins awash in autumnal hues, flesh perfumed with soft florals, honey and nectar. While perfect in a picnic basket with a wedge of good cheese, Bartlett pears are equally—if not more—enjoyable when slipped into pretty glass jars, along with a few spices and avorings, topped with vodka and left to ferment. The resulting pear brandy makes for a thoughtful and festive gift, one that will bring along with it the warmth of late summer—a welcome memory on a cold winter night.