Wednesday

Food and the dead: pears poached in red wine

I can't remember exactly when I wrote these 'instructions' for my funeral but although it was more than a decade before I started the hungry writer blog you'll notice that food plays a pretty central part!

Given a choice

I'd like a sunny day, a party 
in the garden, a wooden table laid 
with a white cloth. A bowl of cherries 
for a stone spitting competition. Veuve Clicquot 
served in uncut glass, brandied sugar cubes 
and people dancing barefoot in the long grass. 

If it’s cold and rainy, rent an old manor house
surrounded by fields. Roast chickens and eat them 
with your hands, crusty bread. Ripe peaches. 
Drink Grand Marnier on ice in a wood-panelled lounge, 
a fierce fire in front of your feet. Fall asleep 
between fat feathered duvets and crisp white sheets. 

If it’s only you, my love, tip what remains of me 
into the sea, then cook our favourite meal – 
prawns in garlic, fillet steak, sweet chips. 
Open the wine with the Picasso label 
we’ve been meaning to drink. Talk 
to someone you love on the phone.

If I’m alone, I choose a mountain 
of slate and gorse and will slowly slip 
between the seams of stone, listening 
to the cries of sheep, the rain coming home. 

My memory box
I keep it with my will, inside an old wooden writing box with other memorabilia, and while I like to hope that the people who will find it will carry out, as far as possible, my wishes, it really won't matter to me by that time! After all, funerals are for the living: people need to do whatever helps them say goodbye and grieve.

Hungry writing prompt
Write about grieving.

But in case anyone reading this is likely to be around at the time of my demise: the Veuve Clicquot (Brut) is not negotiable. 

I never went to the funeral of the woman who gave me the recipe for pears poached in red wine. She was the girlfriend, and then wife, of an entertainments agent who used to book Tony for gigs around the South East when he was a professional entertainer. I went to their wedding, had dinner at their house near Wadhurst, Sussex a few times. She collected old porcelain dolls and a whole tribe of them used to stare out of a glass fronted cupboard in the dining room while we ate. She kept a horse. She wore long clothes: skirts and cardigans that seemed to wrap her like blankets. She came to one of our fancy dress parties  as Charlie Chaplin and strutted like a penguin and twirled her cane all night with an exuberance I'd never seen when she was being herself. Once, when they came to lunch, Tony prepared her a flambĂ©ed peach for dessert in place of the bananas he was making for everyone else. Her husband peered into the frying pan and exclaimed in complete innocence, 'Oh, darling, your peach is wrinkled!' and Tony and I cried with school-yard laughter, hanging onto the edge of the kitchen cabinets like a couple of wet towels. 


She wasn't my friend. And I hadn't seen her for years when I heard she'd died. But I think of her every time I make these pears. I can see her, her long black hair, her pale skin and small mouth, her dark clothes, a little like the Victorian dolls she collected. And that's it. There's no emotional connection at all. Except perhaps a subliminal gratitude for the recipe because the pears are so damn good. Every time. And it makes me think about the idea that the dead are always with us in some way. And how stories keep on growing. 

Is someone who I've served these pears to thinking about me? If so, please put me in a pretty dress. Let me laugh. I have a black cat. And I once attended a fancy dress party as a punk wearing a bin bag and a white string vest. And a trick nail through my head!


And because even I can see there's a little confusing shorthand amongst those old scribblings...

Chianti isn't compulsory - you choose.
5 ounces of sugar
1/4 pint of red wine
1/4 pint of water 
1 inch of cinnamon stick
6 dessert pears (I tend to use Conference)
(2 teaspoons of arrowroot)

(Because I like loads of syrup I double the amounts of sugar, wine, water and cinnamon when I make it. Minimum-syrup people should stick to the original quantities.)

In a large pan, over a low heat, melt the sugar in the wine and water, with the cinnamon stick, then boil for 15 minutes.

In the meantime, peel the pears, leaving the stalks on for decoration, and cut a slice off the bottom of each one if you want to serve them standing up in a bowl like sweet fruity soldiers. But they look as nice lying down, like 6 in a bed. (Or 5 on this occasion.)

Reduce the syrup to a simmer and place the pears in and spoon the syrup over them. I turn them every 10 minutes for about 40 to 50 minutes to make sure they're cooked all the way through. You can always pierce them with a cocktail stick (somewhere unnoticeable) to check. But I'd go for 10 minutes more rather than take the chance on underdone. 


By this time the syrup is syrupy enough so I don't usually need to thicken it with the arrowroot. If you do then take the pears out first, mix the arrowroot into a little bit of cold water, add it to the bubbling syrup and stir well

You can decorate them with a good handful of toasted flaked almonds: throw them in a non stick frying pan and keep stirring over a medium heat. Don't worry about getting them all brown. And don't walk away - they burn quickly. Trust me.