Hallingbury Events Company chef Alistair Dibbs shares his recipe for pear tarte tatin with a lavender and honey syrup
Top chef Alistair Dibbs, from Little Hallingbury, extols the virtues of growing, cooking and eating your own food...
I was going to write about pumpkins and squashes this week, but whilst driving through Farnham I passed a huge pear tree overhanging the road from a garden absolutely laden with conference pears, and this prompted me to make a metaphorical U-turn!
Both pears and apples are right in season now and although I don't have any fruit trees in my garden (watch this space), many people do and find that they are limited on what they can create with the fruit. Pear and apple trees can produce a huge amount of fruit; the fruit drops off the tree when it is ripe and is left to rot or it gets eaten by squirrels and birds.
There is no doubt that the pear gets overshadowed by the more common and accessible apple, but, in my opinion, a fully ripe pear is superior to an apple in terms of flavour. Pears go perfectly with a host of other ingredients – the more common ones are chocolate, blue cheese, almonds and honey, but I love pairing them with herbs like lavender and serving them with meats like lamb and venison.
It must be said that pears do not keep particularly well when ripe and can transition from unripe to overripe very quickly, but use them when they are at their best and you are on to a definite winner!
Pears are best picked when they are very slightly unripe and then left to ripen for a few days on a windowsill. Unlike apples they are one of the few fruits that continue to ripen after picking. They also ripen from the inside out, so if they are ripe on their exterior, they are ready to eat.
Our south-east and Anglian region really does have great growing conditions for pears as they do like plenty of sun and relatively little rain.
There are four main varieties of pear grown in the UK:
Conference. The most common UK variety, it has a relatively long conical shape and tends to be more commonly eaten raw rather than cooked. It's sold in supermarkets the length and breadth of the country and 17,000 tonnes were grown in the UK last year alone!
Comice. Great for poaching in a sweet stock syrup and good with spices and aromatics. They are also great when baked or roasted whole as they hold their shape and texture well.
Concorde. These have a later season than the other varieties and are well known for being a great accompaniment to blue cheese.
Williams. These are full of flavour and can be intensely sweet. Famous all over the world for being the main ingredient in the French pear brandy Poire William, where the fruit grows inside the bottle whilst still on the tree!
Although I have used pears in strudels and chutneys as well as poaching and preserving them, my favourite pear dish is a tarte tatin - the classic French upside down tart.
More usually made with apples, my recipe has an extra touch to elevate it and make it extra special – a lavender and honey syrup. I always serve it with a good-quality vanilla ice cream.
Alistair's recipe for pear tarte tatin
A couple of things to remember before you start. Make sure your pears are very slightly unripe to allow for the cooking and be very careful when turning the tart out – the caramel is very hot!
You will also need a 25cm-diameter heavy-based pan, a plate slightly smaller than your pan and a rolling pin.
(Serves 4 generously)
500g block of ready-made puff pastry
6 medium-sized firm pears (comice are best)
140g caster sugar
2 whole star anise
2 whole cinnamon sticks
For the syrup
40g caster sugar
20g lemon juice
2 sprigs of fresh lavender
Zest of half an orange
4 scoops of good-quality vanilla ice cream
4 sprigs of mint
Preheat your oven to 190C then, using a rolling pin, roll out the pastry to a thickness of around 6mm. Using a plate or similar, cut out a disk that is around 28cm in diameter (slightly larger than your pan diameter).
Using a fork, make a series of holes in the pastry. This will release moisture when the tart cooks and help it to achieve a lovely dark colour. Place this disk in the freezer for a few minutes to firm up - it will make it easier to handle.
Next, peel the pears then cut them in half lengthways and remove the core and any stalk using a sharp knife. Press the star anise into the cut side of two of the pears.
Place the pan on a medium heat and add 120g of the sugar and the butter. Cook them until they reach a light brown caramel. Reduce the heat to low and slowly add the brandy to cool the pan a little (be careful, it may spit). Whisk it so the brandy incorporates with the caramel.
While the pan is still on a low heat, carefully place the pears into the pan, the cut side facing down, pushing as many pear halves into the pan as possible without overlapping them. Finish by placing a pear half in the centre of the pan. Place the two cinnamon sticks into the caramel too.
Remove the pastry disk from the freezer and place it over the pan, taking care to push the edges right down around the pears, forming a lip to keep them in place.
Sprinkle the remaining 20g of sugar over the pastry, place the pan into the oven and cook it for around 20 minutes or until it is golden brown and crispy.
Remove the tart from the oven and leave it to rest at room temperature for five minutes.
Now to turn the tart out. Using a small sharp knife, ensure that the pastry is not stuck to the outside edge of the pan. Gently place the plate mentioned at the beginning on top of the pastry. Cover your hand with an oven cloth and hold the pan handle with the other hand.
In one swift movement, flip the pan over so that the tart is now sitting on the plate with the pears facing upwards, the pan on top and the plate at the bottom. If the tart does not come free of the pan straight away, give it a firm knock on the kitchen work surface. Remove the empty pan and let the tart cool down a little.
For the lavender syrup
Place all ingredients in a small pan and bring them to the boil. Let the syrup cool down naturally and then pour it through a sieve before discarding everything apart from the remaining syrup.
To serve, cut the tart into four equal portions and place each on a plate. Place a scoop of ice cream on top and finish with a drizzle of the lavender syrup and a sprig of mint.