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Oct. 26, 08

Hard frosts did not come to our little farm in Norridgewock this year until mid-October. Dave Luce took time to bank the house with hay bales and plastic and also split and stacked about six cords of wood in new half pallet cribs that he built on hardwood pallets. I dug the potatoes from the garden and the calla lily bulbs in the half barrels lining the front drive and put them away in the basement. The potatoes stay cool and covered in labeled buckets in the Eastern corner under the dining room, and the calla lily bulbs are drying out in a box near the wood/oil boiler under the office. A pear tree that I planted thirty years ago blew over in a strong wind due to bottom rot late this summer but did not die and yielded a half bushel or more of hard pears that I picked after the first hard frost. Across the street, another pear tree produced a bucket or two of pears that Dave and I gathered with an apple ladder. Then on a sunny day in mid October, we the old Subaru wagon across town to Warren’s organic pear orchard where ninety per cent of the pears had dropped to the ground. In thirty minutes, we, on hands and knees, picked six five gallon buckets, a laundry basket and a large Aroostook County split ash potato basket full of pears. Unlike many apples, pears can sit on the ground for some time and remain sound, slowly growing softer and sweeter with a few frosts.

I took my share home and cleared off the brick cookstove, primed the base exit with a couple pieces of burning wadded newspaper and the lit newspaper, small kindling and a couple pieces of finely spit hardwood in the small cookstove firebox. I built the brick cookstove and the three run battery wall behind the stove nearly thirty years ago with antique water struck bricks that the horses kicked up in the little pasture below our big barn. A couple generations ago someone had replaced the original foot thick brick capping courses above the large hand hewn granite foundation blocks with poured concrete and dumped the bricks all over the land just below the barn.

It only takes about twelve to fifteen minutes for the cook top to bring water in a pot to a boil. While the stove was warming up the house, I cut all the pears with a small sharp knife into quarters or halves, removed the stems and bases but left the cores, and dropped them into three large canning pots, two of stainless and one covered with dark blue enamel. I put a cup or two of water in the bottom of each pot but added nothing else throughout the process of making the pear sauce. The cookstove top, with three large machined heavy cast iron hot plates, measures 26″ by 42″. The main lid over the fire is about 14″ in diameter and the two smaller lids further to the right each measure about 10″. Each lid on its underside has a deep zigzag heat exchange grid to move heat rapidly to the surface. After adding the water and keeping the stove going, the main idea is to let the pears slowly brown and simmer. I let the stove go out over night but the heat stored in the brick mass of the stove, plus the storage wall behind the stove, and the chimney going on up through our bedroom, and a convection floor register above the stove and beneath their bed kept the house cozy and warm all night.

By day two the pears were ready to press through the stainless steel sieve of the hand cranked Victorio strainer which I clamped to the antique maple kitchen table with a folded newspaper between the jaws of the strainer as a gasket. There is just room beneath the stainless sleeve of the strainer to insert a tall steel bread loaf pan and beyond the pan out at the mouth of the strainer, I placed a steel roasting pan. On the floor beneath the hand crank of the strainer, I laid a second smaller roasting pan to catch any drips coming out of the top loading funnel end of the strainer. The white plastic funnel holds a half gallon or more of pears and as I turned the crank I also pushed the pears down onto the red plastic auger with a big wooden spoon. Through the hundreds of holes on the stainless sieve sleeve inside of which the red auger turns, hot juicy fluid and sauce begins to squirt and pour out, while the pulp of skins and seeds and cores oozes out the maw of the strainer and falls into the roasting pan.

When one loaf pan was full of this hot brown pear sauce I would slip it out of position and slide a second pan into position and then pour the full pan carefully into a huge stainless mixing bowl. Once one of the large canning pots was empty, the stainless bowl full of thin sauce was poured into the pot. By the time all three canning pots of cooked pears had passed through the sieve, the volume was reduced by about a third and only two stainless pots were required to cook down the pear sauce to perfection. The full roasting pans of pulp were taken outside and dumped for the chickens to peck and scratch through. What they couldn’t eat I dumped into the slatted wooden compost bins, remembering the daily trips the wild turkeys made to the compost bins last winter atop the crusted deep snows to get to layer after layer of some frozen edible food.

Like maple syrup production or my father’s Christmas caramels, the pear sauce process takes time–lots of time–and slow and steady heat. Every hour or so, Cheryl or I added another split log to the fire and rotated the pots nearer or further away from the big hot plate. Descending ridges of dried pear sauce on the inside walls of the pots marked the steady reduction of moisture and the accumulating density and profound concentration of the pear sauce and its flavor. The big hand carved maple wooden spoon sat on top of the two big pots for an occasional stir and a taste test. After forty eight hours, the sauce had reduced by half and was thick enough to can or freeze. The batch yielded nearly twenty eight quarts of dark brown pear sauce.

I gave one to our latest modular soapstone heater client, Diana, a devoted mother, who confided that after tasting it, she wasn’t planning to tell her sons about the treasure in the refrigerator so she could stretch it out a bit at a time for several days. Another container went to a couple who came for a community fire. I set it out next to their camper along with the two unused gallon jugs of water they had left in the kitchen from the common meal the night before. They wrote an email from the road remarking that it was the best new taste she had experienced in years.

It took me over fifty years at a friend’s home to discover the taste and the process of making pure organic pear sauce, but after that one simple meal with that extraordinary dessert, there is a new fall ritual in our lives and there is no turning back.

Wild cranberries still wait in the North Woods bogs under Mount Katahdin. Snow is already on the mountain and the bogs are freezing but if we can slip up for just a day or two in the next week or so, we can stay in the old log cabins, fire up the big iron lumber camp cookstove and hike into the bog for a gallon or two of cranberries apiece, most of which will go into mock cherry pies for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Enough pear sauce has been put away for a daily topping on hot cereal or granola or for an evening dish of vanilla ice cream. The garden is still full of bushels of kale which will carry us to Christmas and beyond. And yesterday, my first batches of organic white and organic red sauerkraut emerged from the German kraut crocks and to be placed in the refrigerator for fall and winter fare. We also cooked freshly ground white Narraganset Indian Rhode Island flint corn Johnny cakes this morning for three generations of hungry Bardens. After breakfast, we took the tops off the freshly dug carrots. Cate took some home to make a big batch of carrot ginger soup to freeze. I took the rest and washed them all clean to pack away in the root cellar and refrigerator. We are grateful for the warmth of our kitchen and the bounty of the garden which we share.

Albie Barden